Necrotizing fasciitis is a type of soft tissue infection. It can destroy the tissue in your skin and muscles as well as subcutaneous tissue, which is the tissue beneath your skin.
Necrotizing fasciitis is most commonly caused by an infection with group A Streptococcus, commonly known as “flesh-eating bacteria.” This is the fastest moving form of the infection. When this infection is caused by other types of bacteria, it typically doesn’t progress as quickly and isn’t quite as dangerous.
This infection is rare in healthy people, but it’s possible to contract this infection from even a tiny cut, so it’s important to be aware of the symptoms if you’re at risk. You should see your doctor immediately if you have symptoms or believe that you may have developed the infection. Because the condition can progress quickly, it’s vital to treat it as early as possible.
The first symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis may not seem serious. Your skin may become warm and red, and you may feel as if you’ve pulled a muscle. You may even feel like you have the flu. You may also develop a painful, red bump, which is typically small. However, the red bump doesn’t stay small. The pain will become worse, and the affected area will grow quickly.
There may be oozing from the infected area, or it may become discolored as it decays. Blisters, bumps, black dots, or other skin lesions might appear. In the early stages of the infection, the pain will be much worse than it looks.
Other symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis include:
- fever with chills and sweating
- infrequent urination
Several types of bacteria cause necrotizing fasciitis. The most common and well-known type is group A Streptococcus. However, this isn’t the only type of bacteria that can cause this infection. Other bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis include:
- Aeromonas hydrophila
- Escherichia coli
- Staphylococcus aureus
To get necrotizing fasciitis, you need to have the bacteria in your body. This typically occurs when the skin is broken. For example, the bacteria can enter your body through a cut, scrape, or surgical wound. These injuries don’t need to be large for the bacteria to take hold. Even a needle puncture can be enough.
You can develop necrotizing fasciitis even if you’re perfectly healthy, but this is rare. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who already have health issues that weaken the immune system, such as cancer or diabetes, are at greater risk of developing infections caused by group A Streptococcus.
Other people who are at greater risk for necrotizing fasciitis include those who:
- have chronic heart or lung disease
- use steroids
- have skin lesions
- abuse alcohol or inject drugs
In addition to looking at your skin, your doctor may perform several tests to diagnose this condition. They may take a biopsy, which is a small sample of the affected skin tissue for examination. In other cases, blood tests, CT, or MRI scans may help your doctor make a diagnosis. Blood tests can show if your muscles have been damaged.
Treatment begins with strong antibiotics. These are delivered directly into your veins. The tissue decay means that the antibiotics might not be able to reach all of the infected areas. As a result, it’s important for doctors to remove any dead tissue immediately. In some cases, amputation of one or more limbs may be necessary to help stop the spread of the infection.
The outlook depends entirely on the severity of the condition. Early diagnosis is crucial for this dangerous, life-threatening condition. The earlier the infection is diagnosed, the earlier it can be treated. Without prompt treatment, this infection can be fatal. Other conditions that you have in addition to the infection can also have an impact on the outlook.
Those who recover from necrotizing fasciitis may experience anything from minor scarring to limb amputation. Many times it requires multiple surgical procedures to treat and then additional procedures such as delayed wound closure or skin grafting. Each case is unique. Your doctor will be able to give you more specific information about your individual case.
There’s no sure way to prevent a necrotizing fasciitis infection. However, you can reduce your risk with basic hygiene practices. Wash your hands frequently with soap and treat any wounds promptly, even minor ones.
If you already have a wound, take good care of it. Change your bandages regularly or when they become wet or dirty. Don’t put yourself in situations where your wound could become contaminated. The CDC lists hot tubs, whirlpools, and swimming pools as examples of places you should avoid when you have a wound.
Go to your doctor or the emergency room immediately if you think there’s any chance you may have necrotizing fasciitis. Treating the infection early is very important.