A necrotizing soft tissue infection is a serious, life-threatening condition that requires immediate treatment to keep it from destroying skin, muscle, and other soft tissues. The word necrotizing comes from the Greek word nekros, which means corpse or dead – a necrotizing infection causes patches of tissue to die.
The most dangerous type of these infections is commonly known as "flesh-eating disease," and if untreated, it can cause death in a matter of hours.
Fortunately, such infections are extremely rare, but because they can quickly spread from the original infection site, it's important to know the symptoms. See your doctor immediately for any of these symptoms:
Pain that is out of proportion to the wound or sore
A wound accompanied by a low-grade fever and a rapid heartbeat (usually more than 100 beats a minute)
Pain that extends past the margin of the wound or visible infection
Pain, warmth, skin redness, abnormal swelling, and tenderness at a wound site, especially if the redness is spreading
Skin blisters, sometimes with a "crackling" sound under the skin
Pain from a skin wound that accompanies signs of a systemic infection, such as chills and fever
Grayish liquid draining from the wound
A small sore or pus-filled bump that is unusually painful to the touch
An area around the sore that is hot to the touch
Difficulty thinking clearly
Areas of skin at or near the wound that do not have any sensation
A sore that won't heal, especially if you are obese, have diabetes, or have a weakened immune system
People with some of these symptoms are surprised to learn that they have a necrotizing soft tissue infection because it did not seem to be especially severe at first. But these infections can progress rapidly if they are not aggressively treated.
Although some news stories use the phrase "flesh-eating bacteria," these infections can also be caused by a fungus. All types of bacteria and fungi can invade an open wound, even a small cut. Some studies suggest that people who have these severe infections may have more than one source of infection. One study showed that more than four types of bacteria were present in these wounds. Common causes include streptococcus bacteria, anaerobic Gram-positive cocci, enterococci, Staphylococcus aureus, and Clostridium perfringens.
Wounds may be infected with more than one microbe, and it can take time to culture and find out which are present. For this reason, your doctors may recommend a course of treatment that can fight many different infections. Delaying treatment increases your risk for a bad outcome.
Your doctor will likely ask you about your medical and travel history, if you've recently been bitten by an animal or spider, if there was an injury to the affected area, if you've been exposed to brackish water or saltwater, whether you've eaten raw seafood, and whether you have a history of intravenous (IV) drug use.
If you've developed a necrotizing soft tissue infection as a result of surgery, it may be slower moving and your skin at the wound site may even look normal at first.
Because your doctor may not be able to tell how far the infection has spread with only a physical examination, he or she might order tests to get more information. These could include:
Blood tests, including a complete blood cell count
X-rays to detect air in soft tissues
Your medical team will check test results for unsuspected organisms and also for drug-resistant germs, which may prompt a change in medication.
Treatment must be aggressive and rapid to be effective. It might include most or all of the following:
Removal of the infected tissue. This is to prevent the spread of the infection. The process is known as surgical debridement.
Antibiotics or antifungal treatments. These medications fight the infection at its source.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy. With this therapy you will spend time in a pressurized chamber that increases the amount of oxygen available for you to breathe and for your red blood cells to take in. This is thought to help in wound healing.
Tetanus immunization. Your doctor might also recommend a tetanus shot to protect against additional infection.
Your best approach to necrotizing soft tissue infections is to do your best to avoid them. To help prevent these infections:
Do foot checks and skin checks. People with diabetes or immune deficiency should always check their feet and skin so that they can find and treat any small sores as soon as they appear, instead of letting them enlarge and become more vulnerable to infection.
Care for wounds and surgical sites carefully. Follow your doctor's instructions when caring for wounds and surgical sites to prevent infection and keep the area clean.
Wash and cover small cuts and scrapes. Even small cuts need to be cleaned with soap and water and be covered with an adhesive bandage.
Avoid sharing personal items such as towels and razors.
Wash your hands regularly, especially before preparing food, after coughing or sneezing, and after caring for people with strep throat or wounds from injury or surgery.
Know your risk factors. People who are at risk for these infections include those with peripheral artery disease, diabetes, obesity, and lifestyle habits such as alcoholism and injection drug use. Manage your risk factors to reduce the risk of infection.
See a doctor immediately if you develop symptoms of the infection.