Raw oysters contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus can be life threatening, even fatal when eaten by someone with liver disease, diabetes or a weakened immune system. However, there are myths that encourage people to eat raw oysters in spite of these dangers. Some of these myths, and the true facts behind them, include:
MYTH: Eating raw oysters are safe if you drown them in hot sauce, which kills everything.
Fact: The active ingredients in hot sauce have no more effect on harmful bacteria than plain water. Nothing but prolonged exposure to heat at a high enough temperature will kill bacteria.
MYTH: Avoid oysters from polluted waters and you'll be fine.
Fact: Vibrio vulnificus in oysters has nothing to do with pollution. Rather these bacteria thrive naturally in warm coastal areas (such as the Gulf of Mexico) where oysters live.
MYTH: An experienced oyster lover can tell a good oyster from a bad one.
Fact: Vibrio vulnificus can't be seen, smelled, or even tasted. Don't rely on your senses to determine if an oyster is safe.
MYTH: Alcohol kills harmful bacteria.
Fact: Alcohol may impair your good judgment, but it doesn't destroy harmful bacteria.
MYTH: Just a few oysters can't hurt you.
Fact: Roberta Hammond, Ph.D, the Food and Waterborne Disease Coordinator for Florida, cites a case where a fatality caused by Vibrio vulnificus occurred after eating only three oysters. The seriousness of any case depends on many factors, including how much bacteria is ingested and the person's underlying health conditions.
MYTH: Avoid raw oysters in months without the letter "R" and you'll be safe.
Fact: While presence of Vibrio vulnificus bacteria is higher in warmer months, according to the Department of Health and Human Service's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a full 40 percent of cases occur during colder months from September through April.
MYTH: Raw oysters are an aphrodisiac and will cure a hangover.
Fact: There is no scientific evidence that either of these commonly held beliefs is true.