Flesh-eating disease: Debunking the myths

What is flesh-eating disease?

Cases of so-called flesh-eating diseases have been making headlines all over the country in recent years. But how much do you really know about the mysterious condition?

What is it?

According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flesh-eating disease (scientific name necrotizing fasciitis) is a rare, potentially deadly bacterial infection.

What causes flesh-eating disease?

The condition can be caused by a variety of bacteria, but public health experts believe the most common cause of flesh-eating disease is Group A Streptococcus, the same bacteria known to cause strep throat.

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Do flesh-eating bacteria just eat up skin tissue?

Contrary to what some may believe, the bacteria behind necrotizing fasciitis aren’t actually named for some Pac Man-like tissue-devouring power. But they are known to release toxins that ultimately cause tissue to die.

Here’s how it works:

Bacteria usually enter the body through a break in the skin, such as a cut, burn, insect bite, puncture wound or surgical wound. Some individuals may get infected after a blunt trauma injury.

According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, upon reaching the superficial fascia, the layer of connective tissue underneath the skin, the bacteria quickly spread, producing two kinds of toxins: endo- toxins (released as bacteria die and break apart) and exo-toxins (released by bacteria as waste). These toxins restrict blood supply to tissue, which can ultimately affect the entire body.

Can antibiotics stop the infection?

“Because blood supply to these tissues becomes impaired, neither antibiotics nor the body’s own mechanisms to fight infection are able to reach these tissues,” NORD reports on its website. That’s why treatment typically requires surgical removal of dead or infected tissue even after antibiotics are administered. In fact, according to the CDC, it’s not uncommon for infected patients to receive multiple surgeries or even a blood transfusion along with intravenous antibiotics.

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Are certain groups at increased risk?

Anyone can get the rare flesh-eating disease, but those who get the illness may also have other health conditions that weaken the body's immune system, such as diabetes, kidney disease, cancer or cirrhosis of the liver. Research has also shown that certain flesh-eating bacteria, such as Vibrio vulnificus, can spread by eating or handling contaminated seafood in areas where water temperatures are on the rise. In Florida, for example, there have been multiple cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections caused by people with open wounds either eating contaminated raw shellfish or swimming in the sea. "Vibrios exist in the sediment (bottom mud and sand) and are, therefore, found frequently associated with shellfish (shrimp, oysters and crabs)," Dr. A. Scott Lea, a professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, told the Austin American-Statesman

How common is the disease?

Since 2010, approximately 700 to 1,200 cases occur each year in the U.S., but CDC experts say that’s likely an underestimate.

What do symptoms look like?

If someone is infected with flesh-eating disease, they may notice early symptoms like red, swollen areas on the skin that spread quickly, severe pain near the swollen areas and fever. Later symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis include ulcers, blisters, black spots, changing skin color, pus from infected area, dizziness, diarrhea or nausea. Symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis usually occur after an injury or surgery.

What do I do if I notice symptoms?

Rapid treatment is key to stopping the infection, which, at its worst, can lead to sepsis, shock, organ failure, limb loss and death. Even with treatment, up to 1 in 3 people infected with flesh-eating disease die from the infection.

Is flesh-eating disease contagious?

Very rarely.

Is there a vaccine for necrotizing fasciitis?

No, there is no vaccine available to prevent flesh-eating disease, but several are in development.

Then what can I do to keep the disease at bay?

The CDC recommends taking very good care of any open wounds to prevent any bacterial skin infection. You can clean your cuts, scrapes or blisters with soap and water; cover any open or draining wounds with clean, dry bandages and get medical care for more serious wounds. Experts also suggest anyone with open wounds stay away from hot tubs, swimming pools and natural bodies of water. For further protection against flesh-eating Vibrio vulnificus, the agency urges the public to wear protective clothing when handling raw shellfish, cooking it thoroughly to avoid contamination and eating promptly after cooking.

You can learn more about the disease and prevention at cdc.gov.

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