Gas Gangrene: Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis

Gas Gangrene

What Is Gas Gangrene?

Gangrene is the death of body tissue. Gas gangrene, also known as clostridial myonecrosis, is a fast-spreading and potentially life-threatening form of gangrene caused by a bacterial infection. The infection causes toxins to release gas, which leads to tissue death.

According to Medscape, approximately 60 percent of gas gangrene cases in the U.S. develop after injury or surgery. (Medscape, 2011) It can occur anywhere on the body, but is most common on the arms or legs.

Symptoms include swelling, blisters that contain gas bubbles near the area of infection, increased heart rate, and high fever. Skin in the affected area often turns from pale to brownish-red. Symptoms progress at a very rapid rate. Treatment may include antibiotics and surgery to remove the dead tissue.

Gas gangrene is a medical emergency. If not treated quickly, it can lead to death in as little as 48 hours.

Causes of Gas Gangrene

Gas gangrene is caused by bacteria called Clostridium perfringens (C. perfringens). In some cases, it can be caused by Group A Streptococcus.

Gas gangrene generally occurs at a recent surgical or injury site. Rarely, it happens spontaneously, without apparent cause. In either case, it comes on suddenly and spreads quickly.

Certain injuries have a higher risk of causing gas gangrene, including:

  • wounds that are very deep
  • injury to muscles
  • crushed tissues
  • wounds that are contaminated with stool or dirt

You are at an increased risk for developing this condition if you have:

  • diabetes
  • blood vessel disease
  • colon cancer
  • frostbite
  • open fractures
  • used a contaminated needle to inject substances into your muscles

Symptoms of Gas Gangrene

Signs and symptoms of gas gangrene include:

  • air under the skin
  • pain
  • swelling
  • pale skin that turns gray, brownish-red, or black
  • blisters with foul-smelling discharge
  • a crackly sensation when you touch your skin in the affected area
  • fever
  • perspiration
  • anxiety
  • increased heart rate
  • vomiting
  • yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)

This condition spreads so rapidly that you can see obvious changes in the skin of the affected area in just a few minutes.

If you have symptoms of gas gangrene, seek emergency medical attention immediately. Delaying treatment can lead to shock, kidney failure, and coma. Death can occur within 48 hours of onset.

How Gas Gangrene Is Diagnosed

Your doctor will perform a physical examination to diagnose this condition. Diagnostic testing may include:

  • blood, fluid, and tissue cultures to test for Clostridium perfringens and other bacteria
  • imaging tests, such as an MRI, CT scan, or X-ray, to check for the presence of gas in your tissues

Treatment for Gas Gangrene

Treatment must begin immediately. For advanced cases, it may be necessary to begin treatment before test results are in. Dead or infected tissue must be surgically removed (debridement), and high doses of antibiotics will be administered.

In severe cases, amputation of a limb must be performed to prevent the infection from spreading to the rest of your body.

Some physicians and hospitals use high-pressure oxygen (hyperbaric oxygen) to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood. This f therapy is used to help wounds—especially infected wounds—heal faster.

Outlook for Gas Gangrene

Gas gangrene begins and spreads very quickly. Your individual outlook will depend on where the infection is located, your overall health, and how quickly you begin treatment. Complications may include:

  • permanent damage to tissue
  • jaundice
  • liver damage
  • kidney failure
  • shock (tissues and organs are not receiving adequate blood flow or oxygen)
  • delirium (sudden and severe confusion)
  • infection spreading throughout the body (sepsis)
  • coma
  • death

Preventing Gas Gangrene

If you have an injury, make sure to clean the skin thoroughly. Contact your doctor at the first signs of infection. Signs of infection include redness, swelling, pain, and discharge. Your doctor will remove any foreign objects and dead tissue from the wound.

Healthcare providers routinely give antibiotics before and after surgery to help lower your risk of developing an infection. Be sure to take all medications as directed by your doctor.

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