Necrotizing fasciitis – sometimes called flesh-eating bacteria – is a very rare disease, but when it does occur, it often makes the headlines.
There is no one bacteria to blame for necrotizing fasciitis. Several types of bacteria, including those associated with common illnesses such as strep throat and impetigo, can become flesh-eating bacteria. In some cases, multiple bacteria are responsible for the rapidly spreading infection.
Necrotizing fasciitis usually develops in the soft tissue and bands of connective tissue surrounding the muscles, nerves, fat and blood vessels and spreads quickly throughout the body. The bacteria enter through a skin wound or the illness can occur as a result of a dental infection, trauma, and surgery or through direct contact with someone infected with a type of bacteria associated with necrotizing fasciitis.
Initial symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis are similar to those of cellulitis. Redness and swelling appear at the site of the injury and the skin is warm to the touch. Sometimes fever, chills, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea develop and the infection quickly progresses becoming life threatening as soon as 48 hours after contracting the infection.
Necrotizing fasciitis is more likely to occur in the elderly, those with chronic conditions such as diabetes and immune suppressed individuals. Those taking aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or using illicit drugs are also at higher risk. Healthy individuals can contract the infection through exposure to contaminated seawater.
Treatment of necrotizing fasciitis requires hospitalization with high doses of IV antibiotics. Your dermatologist will culture the wound to identify the causative bacteria and surgical wound debridement is required to remove necrotic tissue. Depending on the severity and extent of infection, additional therapies may be needed to promote healing and reduce the risk of disfigurement and death.
Necrotizing fasciitis is rare and shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying the summer or keep you out of the ocean, but it is a good idea to take precautions against infection. Remember to practice good hand washing and ensure even minor wounds are clean. If you notice signs of infection at the wound site, see your dermatologist.