How serious is it?
Your skin is supposed to be the barrier that protects your insides from the outside world. Sometimes, it can fall prey to the very things it’s supposed to protect you against. One type of infection is especially concerning because it can result in serious complications if not caught early enough. What is this disease? How is it treated? Can you protect yourself from it?
Flesh-eating bacteria, or necrotizing fasciitis, sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s a rare infection of the skin and the tissues below it commonly caused by group A streptococcus (GAS) bacteria. This is the same bacteria that causes strep throat. Other types of bacteria can cause it as well. The disease happens when the bacteria infect the superficial fascia or layer of connective tissue below the skin. Once it enters the body, it spreads rapidly. It destroys not only the skin but muscle and fat tissue too. It can be deadly if not treated quickly.
The bacteria can enter the body through surgical wounds, puncture wounds, burns, minor cuts, insect bites, or abrasions. Early disease symptoms start within 24 hours and include inflammation, fever, nausea, and serious pain in the affected area. Symptoms also entail a combination of increasing pain in the general area, pain that is worse than expected from the appearance of the area, redness/warmth to the area, flu-like symptoms, and intense thirst from dehydration. Advance symptoms happen about 3 to 4 days after the initial infection and consist of swelling (possibly along with a purplish rash), large/violet-colored marks that turn into blisters filled with dark/foul-smelling fluid, and discoloration/peeling/flakiness as tissue death occurs. Critical symptoms develop by day 4 or 5 and are a severe drop in blood pressure, toxic shock, unconsciousness, and death. Certain things can elevate your risk of developing necrotizing fasciitis, like alcohol abuse, cancer, chickenpox, cirrhosis, diabetes, heart disease that affects heart valves, chronic kidney disease, weakened immune system, lung diseases, peripheral vascular disease, steroid use, or use of injectable drugs.
To increase chances of survival, it’s essential to diagnose necrotizing fasciitis early. So, if you have any symptoms, be sure to go to the nearest emergency room. Treatment depends on which stage it is when it’s diagnosed. Due to the rapid progress of the disease course, you’ll need to be admitted to the hospital to be treated. Typically, treatment involves some combination of intravenous (IV) antibiotic therapy, medications to maintain adequate blood pressure, cardiac monitoring/breathing aids, surgery to remove damaged/dead tissue, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (to preserve healthy tissue), amputation of affected limbs (if necessary), blood transfusions, and IV immunoglobulin (helps support the body’s ability to fight infection).
There are several precautions you can take to prevent necrotizing fasciitis. The most important is to wash your hands with soap and water, especially if your hands are visibly dirty, after going to the bathroom, or after handling certain foods, such as raw meats. If you don’t have access to soap and water, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is acceptable. If you have any cuts or open wounds, be sure to clean them with soap and water before covering them with a clean, dry bandage. Avoid swimming in the pool/lake/ocean or using a hot tube if you have an open wound or skin infection. If you have a serious or deep wound, have it evaluated by a doctor.
Necrotizing fasciitis is a very serious infection. It’s essential to seek treatment early to prevent dire complications. If you have any questions or concerns about necrotizing fasciitis, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Necrotizing Fasciitis page at https://www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/necrotizing-fasciitis.html