What is Gangrene?

Gangrene occurs when tissues die. While it typically sets in around limbs, gangrene can also occur internally and affect organs and nearby muscles and other soft tissues. It develops when tissues no longer have access to blood or when circulation has been severely reduced.


Often seen in diabetics and not associated with an infection, dry gangrene typically appears in areas where blood flow is restricted, such as hands and feet. Tissues in affected areas may eventually turn dark purple or black before dying. Wet gangrene usually results from an injury or serious trauma. The resulting infection can spread rapidly, making this the most serious form of gangrene.

Risk Factors

Gangrene may result from a wound that’s left untreated or one that’s not healing properly or not being treated with antibiotics. It can also result from conditions that affect blood flow, such as type 2 diabetes and peripheral arterial disease due to prolonged periods of limited circulation.


What are the Symptoms of Gangrene?

Symptoms vary from the site and depending on the affection.

Symptoms include

  • Redness and swelling
  • Loss of sensation
  • Severe pain
  • Blisters that bleed
  • Discharge with an odor (sign of infection)
  • Skin that’s pale or cold to the touch

Gangrene Causes

In most causes, gangrene is caused when the blood stops flowing to a certain area of the body. Blood carries oxygen, nutrients, and important antibodies throughout one’s body. When the blood supply is cut off to an area of the body, an infection can develop that leads to dead – or gangrenous – tissue.

Gangrene may also be caused by infection – whether prolonged or traumatic. An infection which goes untreated for a very long time can lead to gangrene. Additionally, traumatic, severe wounds may lead to the invasion of bacteria into the tissue, thus causing gangrene.

There are certain risk factors which increase an individual’s susceptibility to developing gangrene. Individuals with certain health conditions which tend to affect one’s weight – diabetes, atherosclerosis, peripheral arterial disease, and obesity – are typically more likely to contract gangrene. Individuals who engage in the heavy use of cigarette smoking have been scientifically proven to be at greater risk for developing gangrene. Furthermore, certain rare health disorders which affect the immune system can increase one’s risk of gangrene.

How is Gangrene Treated?

Image tests are often performed to determine how far gangrene has progressed.

Treatment includes

Treatment will likely require surgery to remove dead tissue and preserve viable tissue. Follow-up care includes the use of antibiotics and proper wound care. In some cases, an affected limb may need to be amputated.

Gangrene becomes life-threatening if bacteria from the affected area gets into the bloodstream. The resulting septic shock can cause blood pressure to drop to dangerously low levels. Any signs of gangrene should be examined and treated immediately.

Gangrene Prevention

Although it is not possible to completely prevent gangrene, there are many things that a person can do to prevent the disease and decrease their likelihood of developing it. Because frostbitten flesh can easily become gangrenous, it is important to pay close attention to any skin that is exposed to extremely cold weather for a prolonged period of time. Avoiding tobacco use can greatly decrease one’s susceptibility to gangrene. Additionally, individuals with diabetes can prevent gangrene by checking their body for any strange cuts or open wounds, which can potentially become gangrenous. Infected areas of the body can quickly develop gangrene, so it is important to wash open wounds with soap and water, and cover them with a bandage whenever possible.

As with many other illnesses and diseases, persons with poor diets and a tendency toward obesity are at greater risk of developing gangrene. A balanced, nutritionally sound diet – and, if possible, maintenance of a healthy body weight – can greatly decrease one’s risk of developing gangrene.

Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
December 26, 2017