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To Your Health: Blood Poisoning a Deadly Danger When Fishing

Ouch! You’re baiting a bag and a rockfish spine stabs your palm. Or you are throwing a few crabs back and one of them latches on and won’t let go. It hurts, you swear, and then you forget it and get on with the work.

Wrong response. You have just broken your skin, letting in a flock of potentially life-threatening bacteria and viruses. Plus you are working in a less-than-hygienic wet environment where noxious pathogens are prevalent. You could become extremely sick from septicemia.

Septicemia, or sepsis, is the clinical name for blood poisoning by bacteria. It is the body’s most extreme response to an infection. When something bad enters your body, the immune system immediately begins to fight it. Sometimes the immune system goes overboard and causes widespread inflammation throughout the body. Left untreated, sepsis leads to septic shock, when the body’s blood pressure plummets, leading to massive organ failure and possibly death.

You can’t ignore any wounds while fishing because sepsis develops very quickly. When infected a wound may swell up, become red and hot, and fill with pus. As the bacteria move into the blood stream, red streaks may begin extending from the injury into the surrounding tissue and toward the heart. The area becomes extremely painful.

As sepsis spreads, a person quickly may become feverish, have a high heart rate, feel nauseated or vomit, become sensitive to light, have cold hands and feet, and become lethargic, anxious, confused or agitated. If the sepsis progresses to septic shock, the death rate is as high as 50%.

What’s out in the ocean that could cause such a severe response? Bacteria. Bacteria are pretty nimble creatures. They can live in salt water, they can live in the tissues of marine animals, and they can live in us. The pH levels of human blood and ocean water are quite close. The average pH of ocean water is around 8.1 and the pH of blood around 7.3. A pH of 7 is neutral, so both ocean water and blood are slightly alkaline. Bacteria that live in salt water will have no problem living in your blood.

One bacteria that packs a wallop, as Harvard School of Public Health director of outreach Ann Backus noted in an earlier article in Landings, is Aeromonas hydrophila. Our warm and slightly alkaline blood is just what A. hydrophila likes. Once introduced through a puncture or cut, it rapidly will cause a major infection which can progress to sepsis.

There are many other species of bacteria which can live and reproduce in our tissues and blood. The point is that each and every wound experienced while on board must be treated immediately, not delayed until the boat gets on the mooring.

If you get cut or punctured while on board, the first thing is to stop what you are doing and wash the wound with soap, antibacterial if you have it on board, and fresh water. Salt water will NOT disinfect a wound. Cover the wound well and keep it dry. Monitor the injury for swelling. Swelling and red streaks can happen quickly, so keep an eye on it. If it starts to swell, turns red and hurts, go find your doctor. If you have the symptoms of sepsis, someone should take you to the hospital immediately. There you will likely receive a blast of antibiotics, intravenous fluids to maintain blood flow to your organs and maintain your blood pressure, and possibly vasopressor medications, which tighten blood vessels.

You may be 180 pounds, lift weights in the gym, and never even get the common cold, but if you work at sea, you can be knocked flat in hours by microscopic bacteria that you will never see. Pay attention!


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