Necrotizing Fasciitis: Flesh Eating Bacteria

By:    Published: May 16, 2012

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Necrotizing fasciitis (NF), or just plainly referred to as “flesh eating bacteria,” is a rare type of bacterial infection that causes skin tissue to die. It can spread to other parts of the body, can result in the loss of limbs and may even result in death. Read on for more information about flesh eating bacteria, possible causes and why it is imperative to seek medical attention immediately.

What Is It?

While it may sound like an urban legend passed through office emails, necrotizing fasciitis is a very rare, but very real, disease that can, quite literally, make it appear as if the infected person is having his flesh eaten by ravenous bacteria. However, “flesh eating bacteria,” is not an accurate description of the infection as the skin tissue is not actually eaten by the bacteria. In actuality, the toxins the bacteria release are responsible for the damage done to muscles and skin tissue. This is where the “necrotizing” portion of its name is derived from as the toxins cause the skin to die.

The infection can also lead to critical complications that can be life-threatening. Some of these complications include:

  • Shock
  • Organ failure
  • Loss of limbs due to amputation
  • Scarring

Causes And Risk Factors

Necrotizing fasciitis can be caused by various bacteria that typically enter the body through a cut or wound. Group A streptococcus bacterium is a common cause of necrotizing fasciitis, although it is better associated with milder conditions like strep throat. As the infection grows and develops at a rapid pace, it spreads harmful toxins that affect the flesh while cutting off the flow of blood to areas of the body with the end result being the death of flesh and organ failure.

The progression and severity of the infection depends on the infecting organism and how a person’s body responds to it. While necrotizing fasciitis can affect any person at any age, individuals with a compromised immune system are more likely to experience severe reactions. These high-risk individuals include:

  • Those with disorders that affect the immune system, such as lupus.
  • Individuals with diabetes.
  • People suffering from alcoholism or substance abuse.

Signs And Symptoms

Symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis will begin to appear at the point of entry, meaning the location of the cut, wound or area of trauma where the bacteria entered the body. Signs and symptoms that are visible directly on the skin include:

  • The center of the affected area can start to turn black, indicating the skin has died.
  • A painful, red bump on the skin.
  • A wound or bruise that grows rapidly with increasing pain.
  • Breaks in the skin that can open and cause ooze to flow out.

Other symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis include:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Fatigue/feeling weak
  • Chills
  • Shock

Medical Evaluation

During medical consultation, a physician may first evaluate the affected area and examine the appearance of the skin. A physician may also perform a series of tests to determine if the patient is suffering from necrotizing fasciitis. These tests include:

  • Blood tests
  • CT scan
  • Skin tissue biopsy (a sample of the affected skin tissue is taken for examination)

Treatment

If you suspect you are suffering from necrotizing fasciitis, it is imperative that you seek medical attention as soon as possible. Immediate treatment is necessary to prevent further complications like organ failure, amputation and death. Methods of treatment include:

  • A wide array of powerful antibiotics that are administered intravenously (IV).
  • Donor immunoglobulin, which is special medication that may be used to ward off the infection.
  • Surgical removal of dead tissue and/or amputation to prevent the infection from spreading through the appendages (arms or legs).
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy in some cases.

Once the infection has been stopped and treated, skin grafts may be utilized to help skin tissues heal or to improve the physical appearance of affected areas.

Prognosis

The severity of the infection and extent of recovery depend on multiple factors:

  • How quickly the infection was diagnosed and treated.
  • The type of bacteria that caused the infection.
  • How quickly the infection was able to spread through the body.
  • The effectiveness of the treatment administered.
  • The patient’s overall health.

In many cases, skin deformity, permanent scarring and the loss of limbs have been the end result of necrotizing fasciitis. Infected individuals run the risk of dying from the infection if treatment is not administered promptly and properly. To help prevent necrotizing fasciitis, individuals should properly clean and care for all cuts, wounds and other forms of trauma to the skin.

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