Flesh-Eating Bacteria – What You Need to Know to Stay Safe

September 17, 2019

Beachgoers in danger of flesh-eating bacteria

This year, news outlets have been publishing what seems like a record number of reports on flesh-eating bacteria cases. Medically called necrotizing fasciitis, flesh-eating bacteria thrive in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean as well as freshwater sources that feed into these larger bodies of water. During vacation season 2019, many beachgoers have been diagnosed with this flesh-eating bacteria. Usually, only about 1,000 cases of necrotizing fasciitis are reported annually. In 2019, some early research indicates that cases are on the rise, which may be a result of changing climate. Flesh-eating bacteria, when contracted, spreads quickly and can lead to death without proper diagnosis and treatment. According to Dr. Kathleen Ellison of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Fairfax, Virginia, “Education is the best way people can avoid these often-detrimental bacterial infections. By knowing what to look for and how to avoid flesh-eating bacteria, patients can avoid contamination and get help in the earliest, most treatable stages.”

What is Flesh-Eating Bacteria?

Necrotizing fasciitis is a bacterial infection that spreads through the skin. There are actually numerous bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis, but streptococcus is the most common cause of flesh-eating bacteria. People who have recently been injured or undergone surgery are at increased risk for flesh-eating bacteria. The bacteria that cause necrotizing fasciitis can enter the skin through small cuts and abrasions. The condition occurs when bacteria enter the superficial fascia, the layer of connective tissue just below the skin. The bacteria spread rapidly destroying cells and tissue. About 25% of cases result in death.

Why is Flesh-Eating Bacteria in the News Right Now?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have noticed what may turn out to be a significant increase in reported cases of flesh-eating bacteria in 2019. Further study is needed, but scientists for the CDC hypothesize that increasing temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean have allowed for greater numbers of flesh-eating bacteria that thrive in the warm water. While flesh-eating bacteria are found in the largest numbers in seawater, freshwater sources like rivers and tributaries that feed into the ocean can also have high levels of bacteria. Many of the reported cases in the summer of 2019 have been especially aggressive. And, many patients are reporting severe health consequences resulting from necrotizing fasciitis.

What are the Symptoms of Flesh-Eating Bacteria?

In many cases, flesh-eating bacteria is not diagnosed until it reaches critical stages. Unfortunately, the early signs of this condition can easily be confused with other health concerns. An accurate diagnosis from a professional is essential. If you notice any of the following warning signs, talk to a doctor or dermatologist about necrotic fasciitis:

  • Increasing pain near a cut, abrasion, surgical site, or other openings in the skin’s surface
  • A small cut that causes severe, burning pain that worsens instead of receding after the first few days
  • Warmth, redness, swelling, and inflammation surrounding a wound or swelling and purple-colored rash in unrelated areas
  • Blisters filled with a foul-smelling liquid
  • Peeling, flaking skin as tissue death begins in affected areas
  • Symptoms of general illness like fever, nausea, diarrhea, and weakness
  • Severe dehydration and intense thirst
  • A drop in blood pressure and toxic shock can also occur in the later stages of illness

What Should I Do if I Notice Symptoms of Flesh-Eating Bacteria?

If you notice symptoms of flesh-eating bacteria, especially if you have recently visited areas where there have been reported cases, go to the emergency room immediately. This condition is extremely serious and spreads very quickly. Inform the hospital staff that you have potentially been exposed to flesh-eating bacteria and explain why you believe your symptoms are consistent with this condition. As of August 2019, the following states had reported cases of necrotic fasciitis:

  • Alabama
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Texas
  • Virginia

Is Flesh-Eating Bacteria Treatable?

In most patients, flesh-eating bacteria is treatable in the early stages. The severity of the case, health of the individual, and type of treatment offered will all factor into the likelihood of recovery. Some of the treatments utilized include:

  • Antibiotics – typically administered intravenously in hospital rather than orally through medications at home as flesh-eating bacteria can spread very quickly
  • Surgery – the immediately affected areas may be surgically removed in an attempt to halt the spread of infection this may include removing large areas of skin as well as the amputation of limbs in severe cases
  • Other therapies – hyperbaric oxygen therapy is often used to keep remaining tissue healthy, blood transfusions may be recommended in the most severe cases, and intravenous immunoglobulin may be used to improve the body’s ability to fight infection

How can I Protect Myself from Flesh-Eating Bacteria?

Cases of necrotizing fasciitis, even with this year’s slight uptick, are still very rare, but it’s always best to be prepared and do your best to prevent these infections before they start. According to Dr. Ellison, “Anyone can develop necrotic fasciitis, but those who have diabetes, kidney failure, cancer, compromised immune systems, or have recently undergone surgery are at significantly increased risk. If any of this applies to you and you visit an area where flesh-eating bacteria has been reported, you need to take special care to protect yourself.” The good news is necrotizing fasciitis is not contagious, so the only way to contract this condition is to have direct contact with the bacteria. Some preventive measures that can reduce the risk of contracting necrotizing fasciitis include:

  • Clean wounds – make sure to use soap and water to thoroughly clean any cuts, burns, or surgical sites after potential exposure to flesh-eating bacteria
  • Cover wounds – after cleaning, cover wounds with sterile bandages, especially if the wound is draining
  • Wash hands – make sure you wash your hands carefully with hot water and soap, especially if you are going to touch a cut or open wound
  • Avoid warm water – if you have an open wound or are at greater risk for necrotic fasciitis, limit your exposure by avoiding or significantly reducing time in hot tubs, pools, oceans, and fresh water (rivers and lakes)

Let the U.S. Dermatology Partners Help

If you’re in an area served by the U.S. Dermatology Partners, one of our skilled dermatologists would be happy to assist you throughout the treatment process. In most cases, necrotizing fasciitis is treated in a hospital, but our dermatologists will be happy to discuss potential treatments to repair damaged areas of the skin once you’re well. You can easily contact any of our practices by completing our simple online appointment request form. One of our team members will be in touch soon to answer questions, schedule an appointment, or coordinate your ongoing care.

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