Learn more about the risk of flesh-eating bacteria

Necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as “flesh-eating bacteria disease,” is a rare but very serious ailment of the body’s soft tissue. There are only 700-1,000 cases of the disease per year in the United States, and 25-30 percent of cases are fatal.

Who Is at Risk for Necrotizing Fasciitis?

If you are healthy, practice good hygiene and wound care, and have a strong immune system, it’s unlikely that you will develop the disease. Necrotizing fasciitis results from a bacterial infection, so it tends to affect people who have a lower ability to fight infection. This includes those who:

  • Have a chronic health condition.
  • Have a weak immune system.
  • Recently had a viral infection or surgery.
  • Use steroids.

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What Causes Necrotizing Fasciitis?

When bacteria enters an open wound (cut, sore, surgical/injection site, burn, insect bite, etc.) in the body and causes an infection, necrotizing fasciitis can result.

A number of different bacteria can cause the disease, but the most common is group A streptococcus, which also causes strep throat. Because these bacteria are very common, it is important to take good care of all wounds.

The bacteria begin by infecting the skin and soft tissues just below the skin, causing necrosis, or death of tissues. The infection can spread extremely rapidly, killing nerves and muscles and resulting in organ failure.

What Are the Symptoms of the Disease?

Symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis are similar to other medical conditions in the early stages, but the disease spreads very quickly, so it is important to seek medical attention immediately if you think you are at risk.

Flesh-eating bacteria disease symptoms include:

  • Redness or swelling near a wound site (though the infection can begin at a different part of the body)
  • Pain that is much worse than the injury or irritation appears to be
  • Skin that is warm to the touch and has red or purple coloring that spreads quickly
  • Flu-like symptoms including fever, chills, nausea, diarrhea, or fatigue

Spreading of the disease from person to person can happen through direct contact with an infected person’s wound, but it is rare and unlikely.

If you have a compromised immune system and/or recently had an open cut or wound and experience any of these symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.

Treating Necrotizing Fasciitis

The first step in treating flesh-eating bacteria disease is to give the affected patient antibiotics. A doctor can begin intravenous antibiotics at the same time they run tests to confirm the diagnosis. Then, surgery is usually required to remove all dead tissue.

If the infection has progressed to a critical point, which can take as little as four or five days, limb amputation or organ removal may be necessary to completely eliminate the infection and bacteria and save the patient’s life.

Preventing Flesh-Eating Bacteria Disease

There’s no sure-fire way to prevent flesh-eating disease, but you can minimize your risk by practicing good hygiene:

  • Wash your hands and/or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer often.
  • Keep all wounds, even minor cuts and scrapes, clean and dry until fully healed, and don’t delay treatment.
  • Avoid spending time in hot tubs, pools, lakes, and other bodies of water if you have an open wound.

Although necrotizing fasciitis is very rare, it is a serious infection and can quickly become fatal. Even if you are healthy, be aware of any injuries you have and watch for any signs of infection to minimize your risk.

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