What is Vibrio?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2019
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Vibrio is a bacterial genus which is found in temperate to warm aquatic environments all over the world. The most famous species in this genus is probably V. cholerae, the bacterium which is responsible for causing cholera. Cholera is a disease which causes substantial public health problems in warm areas of the world, and the study of cholera played a critical role in the development of the germ theory of disease, which states that microorganisms are responsible for many diseases.

Bacteria in this genus are Gram negative, and most require saline environments to survive, although this is not true of all species. They are facultative anaerobes, which means that they do not require oxygen to survive, and they are highly motile, with tiny flagella which allow them to remove rapidly through the environment. Depending on the species, the bacteria can be S-shaped or comma-shaped.

There are several notable species within the Vibrio genus. A few species demonstrate the trait of bioluminescence, and many others can cause a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms similar to those experienced by cholera patients. Many species are also zoonotic, which allows them to hop from species to species to ensure that they are widely distributed. Shellfish, for example, can house Vibrio bacteria which may make people sick.


Vibrio vulnificus, another notable species, is endemic to several warm climates. In addition to causing intestinal infections, this bacterium can also infect the skin, and it will take advantage of open wounds to spread into the bloodstream, causing septicemia. People with compromised immune systems are at especially high risk of contracting a dangerous infection from this particular Vibrio species.

Many of these species are foodborne, leading some doctors to classify Vibrio infection as a foodborne illness. However, because they live in aquatic environments, they can also spread through contaminated water supplies. This can become an especially large issue when sewage spills occur, as untreated sewage can contain bacteria which will enter the water supply and make people sick.

These bacteria often need warm climates to survive, but many can develop dormancy, which allows them to overwinter and appear again in the spring and summer in areas with cold winter. The ability to overwinter is very useful from the point of view of the bacteria, because it ensures that the organisms will survive in a variety of climates. For microbiologists and public health officials, this trait is extremely irritating, as it makes it extremely difficult to eradicate Vibrio bacteria.


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Post 8

@JaneAir - Not swimming with an open wound sounds like a sensible precaution. However, I would like to point out that there aren't too many reasons to worry about cholera in the US anymore.

Since cholera is mainly caused by unsanitary conditions, our modern water treatment and sewage systems are excellent prevention. Also, these days most people who contract cholera and have access to medical care don't die.

Post 7

@JaneAir - You're right, this bacteria does sound adaptable. I'm amazed that it can go into hibernation and survive the winter!

I think we humans often forget we may be bigger, but we're definitely not stronger than all of the little organisms that can make us sick.

Post 6

This bacteria sounds extremely adaptable. Good for them, bad for us. Until recently, I actually had no idea it was risky to swim in the lake or an ocean with an open wound.

I've heard reports recently of other organisms that are making swimmers sick. This vibrio really takes the cake though. I'm going to be extremely careful from now on not to swim with any open wounds. I don't eat shellfish, so I don't have anything to worry about in that regard.

Post 5

I got infected with vibrio by eating contaminated shrimp and oysters. The seafood restaurant I went to was really nice, so I thought that the food should be safe. I guess there really is no way to tell if shellfish are infected.

Within a couple of hours of eating the food, I started having intense cramps in my stomach and my intestines. Luckily, I was within walking distance of the hotel room.

As soon as I unlocked the door and ran to the bathroom, I began vomiting and having diarrhea at the same time. I have never as awful as I did that night.

Post 4

@Oceana - My friend also got septicemia, but she did not live. She refused to go to the hospital until the second day of being really sick, and it was too late for her.

Like your cousin, she had been in the ocean with an open wound. The water was really warm that summer, so vibrio could flourish.

She got chills and fever, but she didn’t want to seek help. When she became mentally confused and developed red spots on her skin, we picked her up and put her in the car.

At the hospital, they medicated her through an IV. They gave her oxygen and put her in the ICU. Still, they could not save her.

Post 3

I was on vacation with my cousin, swimming in the warm ocean off of Georgia’s coastline, even though she had just cut her arm and had an open wound. I didn’t think that was the smartest thing to do, but she was determined to get in the water.

Vibrio entered the wound, and she developed septicemia, though I didn’t know that’s what it was at first. When we went back to the room later that day, she said she didn’t feel well. She started alternating between fever and chills.

I knew something was very wrong when her breathing became rapid. She just looked so sick. I asked the hotel desk clerk where the nearest hospital was, and I took her there.

Because she got prompt treatment, she survived, but the doctor said she was one of the few. About half of all people who get septicemia do not make it.

Post 2

My great-grandmother died of cholera back in the days before water and sewage were treated properly to eliminate it. My great-grandfather remembered her ordeal clearly, and he told the rest of the family years later about the horrors of cholera. Once the symptoms appeared, she died within three days.

Her diarrhea was so severe. Because of the infection, it turned a milky white color. She kept vomiting, and she became dehydrated quickly.

Her eyes appeared sunken, and she could barely move. On her last day, she started having convulsions. She went into shock and died.

My great-grandfather likely had a mild case of it, because it is extremely contagious. He only had mild diarrhea, and it went away soon.

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