The condition known as necrotizing fasciitis is commonly referred to as the “flesh-eating” bacteria, and this bacteria caused quite a stir in the news some years ago when several cases were reported in the U.S. The bacteria is dangerous because it spreads very rapidly and as it does, it destroys the cells of the soft tissue in the body and these do not grow back or heal. In some cases this bacterial infection can be fatal.
Statistics Regarding Necrotizing Fasciitis
1. While the flesh-eating bacteria gets plenty of press when cases are reported, most agencies agree that there are only about 600 cases or incidents treated annually.
2. There is an incidence rate of 1 in 453,333 people in the U.S., or 0.22%.
3. These statistics break down to some 49 cases reported every month, 11 per week, and less than 2 per day.
4. The infection is fatal in some 20% of cases.
While it may seem frightening and made headlines with reporters, it is actually very rare and the chances of being affected by this bacteria are low, especially for those who have a healthy and strong immune system and who practice good hygiene, and for those who care for wounds when they first appear.
Bacterial Types That Cause Necrotizing Fasciitis
It is actually several forms of bacteria that are classified as necrotizing fasciitis and “flesh-eating.” These include what is called group A Streptococcus or strep, clostridium, e. coli, staph infections or staphylococcus aureus, klebsiella, and aeromonas hydrophila. There are others but these are the main bacterial infections that fall into this “flesh-eating” category. Group A strep is the most common cause of this health issue.
Interestingly, in most cases the group A strep bacteria is very moderate and mild and can typically be treated easily. However, if there are toxins produced by these bacteria they in turn can infect and destroy the tissue, which causes the cells to die off. This is what is meant by the term “necrotizing.”
Preventing the Flesh-Eating Bacteria
Treating wounds properly when they first appear is the best way to prevent the flesh-eating bacteria from appearing or spreading. Wounds should always be drained, cleaned, and covered with clean and dry bandages until they are fully healed. First aid should be administered promptly even with minor wounds that are not yet infected, including scrapes, blisters, and anything else that breaks the skin.
With any open wound, avoid what is called common-use areas and equipment, such as hot tubs, public pools, and whirlpools until the wound is completely healed. Be sure other common-use surface areas are clean before use, such as when at the gym or when using shopping carts at the supermarket. Because some breaks to the skin are not always visible or noticeable, be sure you keep your hands clean by washing with soap and water frequently.
Causes of Necrotizing Fasciitis
Not every open wound will result in necrotizing fasciitis but this condition occurs when the bacteria mentioned above enter the body through breaks in the skin. In addition, the risk is increased for those who have compromised immune systems and other health concerns that make them less able to fight off infections. Common health concerns that make a person more susceptible to the flesh-eating bacteria include diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS, kidney disease, and other such conditions.
The bacteria responsible for necrotizing fasciitis will spread rapidly once they enter the body if the immune system cannot destroy them. The fascia refers to flat layers of membrane that act as connective tissue around fat, blood vessels, nerves, and muscles, and these bacteria attack the tissue and destroys it.
Symptoms of Flesh-Eating Bacteria
Often the symptoms of the flesh-eating bacteria can be confusing and some may assume these are the result of an injury or illness, which also contributes to its rapid spread. Many patients report that the discomfort they feel is similar to a pulled muscle, and the skin may be swollen with an area of red or purple around it which may be mistaken for a bruise. Most patients also report that their level of pain is disproportionate to the appearance of the infected area.
In some cases there are blisters or ulcers that present, along with fever, fatigue, chills, and vomiting. This confusion of symptoms may cause a patient to delay seeking prompt treatment, allowing the bacteria to spread. This in turn compounds the effects suffered.
Antibiotics are typically administered to counteract the flesh-eating bacteria but these must be administered with a needle into a vein to be effective. In many cases surgical intervention is also necessary as these antibiotics cannot always reach the infected area. The dead tissue under the skin must be cut away so that the bacterium does not spread, and a further course of antibiotics is then also used after surgery.