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Necrotizing Fasciitis (Flesh-Eating Disease)

Necrotizing fasciitis is a rare infection of the soft connective tissue (fascia) that runs throughout the body. It occurs when bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin, such as injury, surgery, or IV drug use.

You may hear the term “flesh-eating disease” because the infection spreads so fast. Doctors treat it with antibiotics and surgery.

Although necrotizing fasciitis isn't common, it can be deadly if not treated in time.

Call the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases to learn more or make an appointment at 412-647-7228 or 1-877-788-7228.

What Is Necrotizing Fasciitis (Flesh-Eating Disease)?

Necrotizing fasciitis is a fast-moving infection of the fascia.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates there are 700 to 1,200 cases of necrotizing fasciitis per year in the U.S. Most people who get the disease have other health problems.

Sometimes people call necrotizing fasciitis “flesh-eating disease” because the infection spreads very quickly. The bacteria don't actually "eat" flesh, but they do release toxins that damage tissue.

Necrotizing fasciitis can lead to organ failure, sepsis, and even death.

It occurs equally in men and women.

Necrotizing fasciitis causes

Group A strep bacteria is the most common cause of flesh-eating disease. But other types of bacteria can also cause it.

Bacteria can enter the body through:

  • Burns.
  • Cuts.
  • Insect bites.
  • IV drug use.
  • Puncture wounds.
  • Scrapes.
  • Surgical wounds.
  • Trauma.

Flesh-eating disease risk factors and complications

Anyone can get necrotizing fasciitis, but it's rare for an otherwise healthy person to get it. People who get the disease often have other health problems that weaken the body's immune system.

Flesh-eating disease isn't contagious, but people can become colonized with bacteria — often Group A strep — that can cause it.

Risk factors for necrotizing fasciitis include:

Complications from necrotizing fasciitis are serious. The disease spreads quickly through the body, so doctors need to treat it fast.

Untreated, flesh-eating disease can lead to:

  • Loss of limbs.
  • Organ failure.
  • Severe scarring.
  • Sepsis and septic shock.
  • Death.

How to prevent necrotizing fasciitis

Good hygiene and wound care are the best ways to prevent the disease.

Steps you can take

  • If you have an open wound, stay out of hot tubs, swimming pools, and bodies of water like lakes and ponds.
  • Cover open wounds with dry bandages until they heal.
  • Clean minor cuts, blisters, and scrapes with soap and water. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you don't have access to soap and water.
  • Wash your hands often (especially after using the bathroom) with soap and water.
  • See a doctor for any puncture wound, even if it's not bleeding.

Necrotizing Fasciitis Symptoms and Diagnosis

Flesh-eating disease forms quickly.

It's vital to get medical help right away if you have any of these symptoms, especially after an injury or surgery:

  • A swollen, red, warm spot on your skin that spreads within a few hours.
  • Severe pain at the site of the infection.
  • High-grade fevers.
  • Black spots (necrosis) on the skin.
  • Changes in skin color, often bluish purple.
  • Pus oozing from the infected area.
  • A wound that causes confusion, nausea/vomiting, or drops in blood pressure.

Diagnosing necrotizing fasciitis can be hard since early symptoms (fever, pain) are much like those of other infections.

To help diagnose flesh-eating disease, your doctor may:

  • Take a biopsy (tissue sample) of the infected tissue.
  • Order bloodwork to look for signs of infection.
  • Order a soft tissue CT scan, MRI, or ultrasound of the infected area.

Necrotizing Fasciitis Treatment

If you have flesh-eating disease, you need prompt treatment in a hospital.

Your doctor may treat necrotizing fasciitis with:

  • Antibiotics. Your doctor will give you antibiotics through a vein to stop the infection. Using a vein makes the drugs stronger, and they work faster.
  • Surgery. If the bacteria have killed too much tissue, doctors may have to remove it with surgery. You may need more than one surgery to remove all the dead tissue and restore good blood flow to the area.
  • Blood transfusion. In extreme cases of flesh-eating disease, you may need a blood transfusion after surgery.

The expert care team at UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases:

  • Uses the latest techniques and state-of-the-art equipment to diagnose and treat flesh-eating disease.
  • Provides top-notch inpatient and outpatient care for all types of infections.
  • Conducts infectious disease research, giving you the chance to take part in clinical trials.

Contact the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases

To learn more about the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases or to make an appointment, call 412-647-7228 or 1-877-788-7228.