Flesh-Eating Bacterial Infection (Necrotizing Fasciitis)

What is a Flesh-Eating Bacterial Infection?

Flesh-eating bacterial infection is also known as Necrotizing Fasciitis and can be fatal if not treated immediately. The condition causes death to the body’s soft tissue, appears suddenly, spreads rapidly, and is rarely seen in children.

In the U.S. between 600 and 700 cases are diagnosed each year with about 25% to 30% of cases resulting in death. 70% of cases are reported among individuals who exhibit at least one of the following conditions: diabetes, immunosuppression, malignancies, substance abuse, and chronic systemic diseases. The gold standard for diagnosis is surgical exploration when Necrotizing Fasciitis is suspected. There are four types of flesh-eating bacterial infection.

The most common type is caused by a mixture of bacterial types and usually occurs at the sites of trauma or surgery, Type II is caused by Group A streptococciand usually appears on the neck, head, arms, or legs, Type III is caused by Vibrio vulnificus and enters the skin through puncture wounds from insects or fish in seawater, and Type IV is caused by a fungal infection.

What are the Symptoms of a Flesh-Eating Bacterial Infection?

Symptoms differ between people and some symptoms may not be as serious as others.

Symptoms include

Warm skin, fever, severe pain, chills, fatigue, diarrhea, severe drop in blood pressure, unconsciousness, toxic shock, intense thirst due to dehydration, vomiting, soreness that feels like a pulled muscle, red or purplish areas of swelling that spread rapidly, and ulcers, blisters, and black spots on the skin.

Flesh-Eating Bacterial Infection Causes

Contrary to popular belief, the bacteria responsible for necrotizing fasciitis do not actually eat the flesh or cells of the skin. They only release toxins that cause the cells to die, which has arguably the same effect on the body. While there are a number of bacteria that can be responsible for an infection of this magnitude, over eighty percent of cases involve bacteria of more than one type. Oftentimes, the infecting bacteria are actually species that are commonly present on or near the body, but a weakened immune system, open wound, or intravenous contact has given the bacteria an opportunity to spread into the body.

The bacteria can be contacted through unclean water, sewage, hospital settings, dirty needles, and even a rare saltwater bacterium known as Vibrio vulnificus. While cases are rare, early treatment is vital in order to increase the likelihood of survival.

How is a Flesh-Eating Bacterial Infection Treated?

Once diagnosed treatment should occur immediately.

Treatment includes

Intravenous antibiotic therapy, medicine to raise blood pressure, sometimes amputation of affected limbs, skin grafts as needed, surgery to remove dead or damaged tissue in order tohalt the spread of the infection, blood transfusions, breathing aids and cardiac monitoring, hyperbaric oxygen therapy to preserve healthy tissue, and intravenous immunoglobulin to help the body fight the infection.

Flesh-Eating Bacterial Infection Prevention

The bacteria responsible for necrotizing fasciitis are usually contacted either intravenously or through open-wound contact with an infected person or unclean water. Proper wound-treatment is required for any type of injury, especially in situations where the injured person may be around unclean water or infectious people. Sharing or re-using needles is discouraged in any setting, but especially when flesh-eating bacteria may be a risk. Tattoo parlors should also be up to health standards to reduce the risk of infection.

Hand-washing can also play a part. Both doctors, patients, and caretakers are advised to wash their hands before dealing with any kind of open wound, whether it is a shallow cut, puncture wound, or even a burn or bruise. Keep the bandages clean, and do not come into contact with sewage, irrigation systems, flood water, seawater, or raw seafood. Unclean areas should be avoided, and wounds should stay covered and protected until healing of the exterior skin can occur. If you encounter symptoms, do not hesitate to visit a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

Last Reviewed:
October 06, 2016
Last Updated:
December 22, 2017
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