First things first: Is there such a thing as a flesh-eating bacteria?
This is a headline grabbing term but a misnomer. A more apt term would be “flesh-eating infection.”
There are several types of bacteria that can lead to an infection called Necrotizing Fasciitis, a type of rare soft tissue infection that destroys (or eats) the skin tissue and muscles around it.
People do not “catch” necrotizing fasciitis. It is a complication or a symptom of a bacterial infection that has not been treated properly.
The Fast Facts
Necrotizing fasciitis is a bacterial infection that leads to the death of tissues in the body.
It is a fast-acting infection caused by several types of bacteria including Vibrio Vulnificus, which is a naturally occurring bacteria found in warm, salty waters such as the Gulf of Mexico.
The most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis is Group A Strep.
These bacteria can enter the body through a minor cut, scrape or through blunt trauma. They can be found in saltwater or on land.
People with compromised immune systems are at greater risk than healthy adults.
The first signs of the bacterial infection begin when the infected area becomes warm and red. You might also develop a painful red bump or blisters. It won’t seem serious at first but will spread rapidly in the next 12-24 hours.
Other symptoms include fatigue, weakness, fever, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. It’s important for anyone with these symptoms to seek medical help immediately.
A doctor will test for necrotizing fasciitis through a series of blood tests, biopsies and scans. Early treatment with strong antibiotics is key and surgery can be required.
Even with treatment, up to 1 in 3 people with necrotizing fasciitis can die from the infection.
Where can these bacteria be found?
Vibrio vulnificus is present in coastal waters. Necrotizing wound infections can occur in injured skin exposed to vibrio contaminated marine water. Concentrations of this bacteria are higher when water temperatures are warmer.
Group A Streptococcus is thought to be the leading cause of Necrotizing Fasciitis infections. Breaks in the skin or blunt trauma can allow the bacteria to enter. The CDC estimates 700 to 1200 cases in the U.S. every year. CDC notes this is most likely an underestimate.
Bacteria are found everywhere, not just in water or saltwater. Any direct contact with these types of bacteria can cause a necrotizing infection if not properly treated.
Good hygiene and wound care remains paramount to preventing any bacterial infection. To avoid this type of serious infection, it’s important to take care of any cuts or scrapes that you have, especially before entering saltwater. Regularly changing bandages and cleaning cuts can help minimize your risk of infection.
If you have a compromised immune system or an open wound or skin infection, avoid spending time in hot tubs, swimming pools, and natural bodies of water (e.g., lakes, rivers, oceans).
Most people who get this illness have other health problems that may lower their body’s ability to fight infections. Some conditions that weaken the body’s immune system include diabetes, kidney disease, cirrhosis/liver disease, cancer.
Seek treatment immediately if you develop signs or symptoms.
Knowing the facts can help you protect yourself and others from a rare, but potentially deadly infection.
Resources from the CDC: Group A Strep Necrotizing Fasciitis; Vibrio Vulnificus FAQ; Necrotizing Fasciitis FAQ
From WebMD: Necrotizing Fasciitis
From Sepsis.org: Necrotizing Fasciitis