Flesh-eating bacteria explained

Posted at 2:52 PM, Sep 29, 2015
and last updated 2017-06-26 14:15:57-04

We've assembled some facts and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about flesh-eating bacteria, including how it spreads, what symptoms to watch out for and other vital information:

What is it?

Flesh-eating bacteria, or necrotizing fasciitis, is a serious bacterial skin infection that spreads quickly and kills the body's soft tissue. It can be caused by more than one type of bacteria.

These include group A Streptococcus (group A strep), Klebsiella, Clostridium, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Aeromonas hydrophila, among others. Group A strep is considered the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis.

Usually, infections from group A strep bacteria are generally mild and are easily treated. But in cases of necrotizing fasciitis, bacteria spread rapidly once they enter the body. They infect flat layers of a membrane known as the fascia, connective bands of tissue that surround muscles, nerves, fat, and blood vessels.

The infection also damages the tissues next to the fascia. Sometimes toxins made by these bacteria destroy the tissue they infect, causing it to die. When this happens, the infection is very serious and can result in loss of limbs or death.

Necrotizing fasciitis is rarely spread from person to person

Most cases of necrotizing fasciitis occur randomly and are not linked to similar infections in others. The most common way of getting necrotizing fasciitis is when the bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin, like a cut, scrape, burn, insect bite, or puncture wound.

Most people who get necrotizing fasciitis have other health problems that may lower their body's ability to fight infection. Some of these conditions include diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, or other chronic health conditions that weaken the body's immune system. If you're healthy, have a strong immune system, and practice good hygiene and proper wound care, your chances of getting necrotizing fasciitis are extremely low.

  • Good wound care is important
  • Keep draining or open wounds covered with clean, dry bandages until healed
  • Don't delay first aid of even minor, non-infected wounds like blisters, scrapes or any break in the skin
  • If you have an open wound or active infection, avoid using whirlpools, hot tubs and swimming pools until infections are healed
  • Wash hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub if washing is not possible

Necrotizing fasciitis symptoms can often be confusing

The symptoms often start within hours after an injury and may seem like another illness or injury. Some people infected with necrotizing fasciitis may complain of pain or soreness, similar to that of a "pulled muscle."

The skin may be warm with red or purplish areas of swelling that spread rapidly. There may be ulcers, blisters or black spots on the skin.

Patients often describe their pain as severe and way out of proportion to how the painful area looks when examined by a doctor. Fever, chills, fatigue (tiredness) or vomiting may follow the initial wound or soreness. These confusing symptoms may delay a person from seeking medical attention.

If you think you may have these symptoms after a wound, see a doctor right away.