Raw oysters are a happy hour and summertime favorite for many. However, like any raw seafood, eating these salty molluscs comes with risks—and may be life-threatening for people with certain health conditions.
If you feel icky after eating raw fish like sushi, it may have been caused by foodborne illness-causing bacteria, such as Listeria or Salmonella (or maybe you just left your sushi leftovers in the fridge for too long). Raw oysters, however, are often plagued with a different group of bacteria called Vibrio.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most Vibrio infections (vibrosis) from oysters and other shellfish, such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus infection, may cause only diarrhea and vomiting. A Vibrio vulnificus infection, however, is much more dangerous.
Eating raw oysters contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus can cause an infection in the bloodstream and may be life-threatening for people who have liver disease, diabetes, a weakened immune system, or have taken medicine to lower stomach acid levels. According to the CDC, a Vibrio vulnificus infection is fatal for 1 in 5 people.
Vibrosis infection may occur within 24-48 hours of ingestion, and cause symptoms such as:
If you suspect a vibrosis infection in yourself or a friend, it’s critical to call your doctor immediately and let them know if you ate raw shellfish recently.
To protect yourself and others, it’s also important to squash misinformation about raw oysters in its tracks. There are many myths being spread about raw oysters that may encourage high-risk people to consume them when they shouldn’t, putting them in danger. If you hear these myths, shuck them and debunk them immediately with the cold hard facts:
MYTH: Throwing hot sauce on your raw oyster will kill everything.
FACT: The hot sauce may cause pain to your mouth, but it won’t hurt bacteria. The only way to kill harmful bacteria is to cook your oysters thoroughly.
MYTH: Raw oysters are safe if you drink alcohol while eating them.
FACT: Drinking may impair your judgment, but it won’t kill the bacteria in your food.
MYTH: Just make sure your oysters come from clean water.
FACT: Vibrio vulnificus thrive in warm environments, specifically coastal areas where oysters live, such as the Gulf of Mexico. They don't grow because of polluted water. According to the CDC, about 80 percent of infections also occur between May and October, when water temperatures are warmer.
MYTH: A few oysters won’t hurt you.
FACT: The seriousness of each Vibrio case is different for everyone. How your body reacts depends on your overall health and how much bacteria (or oysters) you ingest.
MYTH: Raw oysters are an aphrodisiac.
FACT: There is no sufficient evidence that this is true. (Psst … here are some proven ways to boost your libido.)
In healthy people, these bacteria may not be as life-threatening, but they may still cause unpleasant symptoms. (Here are the textbook signs of food poisoning.)
To reduce your risk of infection, it’s best to stick to cooked oysters—and shuck these myths about the safety of raw oysters. (Also, be sure you’re not making these rookie food poisoning-causing cooking mistakes.)