Necrotizing soft tissue infections can be deadly without immediate care. Know the flesh eating bacteria symptoms to look for. Read more.
What is flesh eating bacteria?
Flesh eating bacteria is a popular name for necrotizing fasciitis, a skin infection that causes your soft tissue to die rapidly.
There is no single type of flesh eating bacteria. Many bacteria can cause necrotizing fasciitis, though most of them also cause milder diseases. Some of these bacteria include Vibrio, Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, Klebsiella, and E. Coli. The most common type of flesh eating bacteria is group A Streptococcus, or group A strep.
What causes flesh eating bacteria?
In most cases, these bacteria do not cause necrotizing fasciitis. When the bacteria enter an open wound or burn, however, they can cause potentially deadly infections. Some types of flesh eating bacteria can also be ingested when they contaminate the water that shellfish live in. Eating these contaminated shellfish can cause necrotizing fasciitis.
No matter how flesh eating bacteria enters your body, they can release toxins that cut off the blood supply to tissue, causing your tissue to die and preventing your immune system from fighting the infection with white blood cells. When this happens, you develop necrotizing fasciitis, and the infection spreads quickly.
Medical treatment is the only way to stop an infection of flesh eating bacteria, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that treatment should happen as quickly as possible due to the rapid rate at which flesh eating bacteria can spread through your body.
Necrotizing fasciitis is treated with antibiotics to stop the spread of the infection. Dead tissue may have to be removed, and in some cases extensive surgery may be needed. If left untreated, infections from flesh eating bacteria can lead to organ failure, toxic shock syndrome, blood poisoning, and death.
Necrotizing soft tissue infections
Another name for necrotizing fasciitis, the disease caused by flesh eating bacteria, is necrotizing soft tissue infection, or NSTI. This refers to any type of bacterial infection that causes the death of soft tissue, such as skin or organs, in the body.
Necrotizing fasciitis is a specific type of NSTI that affects the fascia, the tissue that surrounds the nerves, blood cells, muscles, and fat in your body. Medical researchers often use necrotizing soft tissue infection as an umbrella term, but you are more likely to see newspaper reports or news programs use the phrase “flesh eating bacteria” to describe the disease.
Am I in danger from flesh eating bacteria?
Most people who are infected with flesh eating bacteria already have compromised or weakened immune systems. This includes people who have just had surgery, the very elderly, or those with conditions such as cancer, kidney disease, or diabetes.
It is also highly unlikely that you will ever catch a flesh eating bacteria from someone who is already infected. Necrotizing fasciitis does not spread directly from person to person.
However, there are times when multiple flesh eating bacteria infections occur in a single geographic region. In the summer of 2017, for example, there were several cases of necrotizing fasciitis in the state of Alabama. Three confirmed cases were caused when people with open wounds went swimming in the same body of water and were infected with Vibrio. A fourth case was due to a woman eating contaminated shellfish.
To prevent infections from flesh eating bacteria, you should avoid swimming when you have open cuts or scrapes. If you have open wounds, especially if you are in a medical facility, wash your hands frequently and keep your injury clean and covered with sterilized bandages. Avoid eating raw or undercooked shellfish, such as oysters, and always wear gloves if preparing shellfish yourself.
If there are ever reports of flesh eating bacteria in your area, you should follow any guidelines that public health officials release in order to avoid a potentially deadly infection.
Flesh eating bacteria symptoms
If you are worried that you may have been exposed to dangerous bacteria, look for these flesh eating bacteria symptoms.
If you have open wounds or sores, you will experience excessive pain at the site of the injury, along with red or purple discoloration and swelling. The skin may feel hot to the touch. Other symptoms will occur as the disease progresses, including:
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Fever or chills
- Discoloration on the skin, including red or black bumps spreading out from the wound
- Pus or a smelly grey fluid coming from a wound
- Ulcers or open sores
- Numbness or tingling around an injury
- Severe pain
- Fatigue, lightheadedness, or confusion
These symptoms of flesh eating bacteria usually begin quickly after you are exposed, though in some cases you may not notice signs of an infection for several days.
If you experience these symptoms, seek medical help immediately. Rapid care is the only way to treat flesh eating bacteria successfully.
March 26, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN