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Should You Worry About Flesh-Eating Bacteria?

The summer has brought a spike in cases of flesh-eating bacteria on the east coast of the United States, and the resulting infection can be deadly. Should you be worried before you go swimming?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #335
lake swimming

Imagine it’s a hot summer day so you decide to take a quick dip in the river to cool off. You have the smallest of scrapes on your leg—perhaps from shaving, or from when you bumped into the corner of that table. The cut is so small, you’ve forgotten about it. A few hours after your swim, you spike a fever and notice a red, swollen spot on your leg that's painful to the touch. You decide to sleep it off, but within a day, your tender leg has swollen to nearly twice the size of your other leg and you can no longer walk on it. The skin soon starts to turn black and appears to rot like a piece of fruit left out in the hot sun. 

In the past month, at least four people have been diagnosed with flesh-eating bacterial infections.

In the past month, at least four people have been diagnosed with flesh-eating bacterial infections. A 77-year old woman stumbled while walking on a Florida beach and later died from the necrotizing fasciitis she contracted through the resulting cut on her leg. A 12-year old girl nearly lost her leg to flesh-eating bacteria after swimming with a small scrape on her toe. One man who owns a water sports business in Florida was diagnosed with a Vibrio infection despite not having been directly in contact with water himself. 

Could this happen to you? Should you be worried about getting infected by flesh-eating bacteria? Can it be prevented?

What Is Flesh-Eating Bacteria? 

Necrotizing fasciitis is so-named for the death (that’s the necrotizing part) of tissues or fascia (the tissue under the skin that surrounds our muscles, nerves, and fat). And although we often call it flesh-eating bacteria, there is more than one kind of bacteria that can cause it. In most cases, a small cut or scrape allows the bacteria to enter the body, but burns, insect bites, and surgical wounds can also act as a gateway. There are even cases of the bacteria finding its way in through blunt trauma wounds that haven’t broken the skin. 

Besides its foreboding name, necrotizing fasciitis is most frightening because it spreads very quickly and has a high mortality rate. The disease can quickly lead to sepsis, a condition related to how our bodies react to an infection. When our bodies release chemicals to fight an invading infection, sometimes our response to those chemicals is unbalanced. This extreme response can lead to septic shock, dramatic drops in blood pressure, and major organ failure. People most vulnerable to sepsis are anyone with compromised immune systems like seniors, pregnant women, children under one year of age, and people with chronic conditions like diabetes or kidney disease.

Besides its foreboding name, necrotizing fasciitis is most frightening because it spreads very quickly and has a high mortality rate.

Doctors may diagnose necrotizing fasciitis by taking a tissue sample, taking bloodwork to look for signs of infection, assessing muscle damage, or taking an image of the bruised area via a CT scan, MRI, or ultrasound. Sometimes, there's no time to lose, so doctors won’t wait for test results before taking action. Even with quick treatment, 1 in 3 people die from the infection. 

Vibriosis, an infection caused by the Vibrio species of bacteria that can cause symptoms similar to those of necrotizing fasciitis, is typically contracted by exposing a wound to ocean water or by eating undercooked seafood. An estimated 80,000 people contract Vibriosis and 100 people die from the disease in the United States every year. 

How Can I Avoid Necrotizing Fasciitis? 

Because it is not usually derived from other infections, necrotizing fasciitis usually strikes randomly and unexpectedly. A first step toward avoiding necrotizing fasciitis is proper wound care, especially if you have a condition that compromises your immune system. If you have an open wound, avoid swimming, whether in a pool, a natural body of water (like lakes or oceans), or a hot tub. Stay away from raw or undercooked seafood like oysters. 

And look out for the early warning signs of the infection. According to the Center for Disease Control in the US, early symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis include a fast-spreading red or swollen area; severe pain, even beyond the red and swollen area; and a fever. As the disease progresses, the swollen area may start to blister, turn black, and ooze. Dizziness, fatigue, diarrhea, and nausea may also show up. If you suspect you could have contracted the disease, don’t try to sleep it off. Go to the emergency room as soon as you can. 

Researchers suggest that the increase in cases of bacterial infections like necrotizing fasciitis are linked to global warming and will only get worse as our planet continues to warm.

Researchers suggest that the increase in cases of bacterial infections like necrotizing fasciitis are linked to global warming and will only get worse as our planet continues to warm. Not only are certain bodies of water or areas of ocean warmer for longer, but the regions of water that is warm enough for the bacteria extend to more and more locations. Bacteria thrive in warmer waters, so the risks may rise along with the temperature. 

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