Your Skin ‘Microbiome’ Can Be Hijacked By Bacteria After Swimming In The Beach

Researchers from the University of California found out that swimming in the ocean for ten minutes can allow bacteria to hijack your skin's microbiome.An ocean-dwelling bacteria called Vibrio was detected by the researchers. Photo: Andrea Fistetto | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

In ten minutes, there are millions of things that could happen to a person. But one thing is sure for researchers from the University of California: bacteria can hijack your skin’s protective layer of good bacteria from the ocean after you swim for just ten minutes.

According to the study, swimming in the ocean for ten minutes can allow bacteria present in the water to stick into the skin, and some of those uninvited bacteria will try to lodge into your delicate covering, causing a plethora of disease by disrupting the natural environment of good bacteria in the skin known as the microbiome.

The effect of bacteria on the skin’s microbiome

A group of respondents who volunteered for the study were tested before and after swimming at the beach for ten minutes. Researchers found out that before swimming, the microbiome in the skin of the respondents was distinguishable from each other. But after performing the said activity, the respondents’ microbiomes started to change and appear similar to each other — meaning they all have the same colonies of bacteria in their skin.

“Our data demonstrate for the first time that ocean water exposure can alter the diversity and composition of the human skin microbiome,” said lead author Marisa Chattman Nielsen, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Irvine, in a release from the university. “While swimming normal resident bacteria were washed off while ocean bacteria were deposited onto the skin.”

Researchers found Vibrio species post-swimming

It’s important to note that the changes in the microbiome were temporary, with most of the respondents reverting to their normal microbiome state in 24 hours.

Nonetheless, concerns were still raised, as in a considerable number of respondents, researchers have found common sea-dwelling bacteria called Vibrio. While most species of this bacteria is mostly harmless, but some bring dangerous diseases like cholera, or can rarely cause flesh-eating skin infections, especially in people with weakened immune systems.

The presence of Vibrio was a sign that there are skin-drawn bacteria that a person who swims in the ocean for a specific amount of time could attract. Even if the researchers were only limited to detecting bacteria in the genus level, and not in the species level, they still noticed that a more significant proportion of Vibrio bacteria found on the volunteers’ skin than in the surrounding ocean water the team also tested.

“While many Vibrio is not pathogenic, the fact that we recovered them on the skin after swimming demonstrates that pathogenic Vibrio species could potentially persist on the skin after swimming,” said Nielsen.

The study could explain why people get sick after swimming

However, researchers are disclaiming that the study has yet to end, and the results are still partial. They are presenting the results of their experiment at the American Society for Microbiology’s annual conference this week.

If the study holds up, it could explain the pattern of beach-goers getting sick after swimming the waters or staying in the sand for a suspended period like a stomach ache or ear infection. These diseases are usually attributed to germs – like poop – but the researchers believe that the effect of bacteria on the skin’s microbiome contribute primarily to the development of these diseases.

“Recent studies have shown that human skin microbiome plays an important role in immune system function, localized and systemic diseases, and infection,” said Nielsen. “A healthy microbiome protects the host from colonization and infection by opportunistic and pathogenic microbes.”

In the past, these diseases were attributed to poop and other germs habituating the oceans. According to the study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, compared to non-bathers, they found, seawater frolickers were on average 86 percent more likely to come down with any illness soon after, typically the stomach flu or ear infection.

The researchers reviewed 40 past studies that collectively involved 120,000 people across highly industrialized countries, including the US, Norway, Denmark, and the UK, among others.

“Although most people enjoy the coastal waters without incident, this study shows for the first time that there is a significant increase in the risk of ear and gut ailments in those who are exposed to bathing waters,” co-author Andrew Singer, a pollution scientist at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology located in the UK, said in a statement.

But researchers from the University of California hopes that their study could eventually patch the gaps in previous studies and explain how bacteria destroying the skin’s microbiome could be the reason why people get sick after they swim in the ocean. The researchers are also encouraging everyone to always shower after dipping into the ocean water to prevent such diseases from happening.

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