What to know about flesh-eating bacteria
Though warmer temperatures bring excitement for more water activities, they also can bring worries about safety surrounding those activities. An infectious diseases expert at Baylor College of Medicine shares what you need to know about a rare but often feared health concern: flesh-eating bacteria.
"Flesh-eating bacteria refers to an infection that spreads so rapidly that the skin and surrounding soft tissue starts to die," said Dr. Stacey Rose, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Baylor. "This is still a rare condition but can be quite serious, especially for individuals who have a compromised immune system."
According to Rose, the number one cause of infection due to flesh-eating bacteria, also known as necrotizing fasciitis, is group A strep, a common organism and the same bacteria that causes illnesses like strep throat. One of the reasons that strep spreads so quickly is it produces toxins that break down the skin, which is part of the problem when it comes to flesh-eating bacteria.
Besides strep, staph infection also can cause necrotizing fasciitis. Vibrio vulnificus is a less common cause of the disease; the organism lives in warm marine water like that of the Gulf Coast. Though most people who come in contact with Vibrio don't have any issues, there are some individuals who are more at risk for complications if they do. For example, individuals with immune-compromising conditions such as liver disease who go into bodies of water with what might seem like a minor cut could end up having a more serious infection.
Rose offers some tips to keep you and your loved ones safe this summer:
- Avoid bodies of water if you have an open wound
- Wash your hands with soap and water after any summertime activities
- If you incur a minor cut or injury while enjoying these activities, immediately clean those cuts or injuries with soap and water
- Keep your skin healthy—skin issues such as eczema or athlete's foot can create a breakdown in the skin, which can predispose to bacterial infections
- If you have an immune-compromising condition such as liver disease, kidney disease or diabetes, be more cautious when you go into bodies of water, especially if you have an open wound
- Shower after any water activities
- Chlorinated waters are likely cleaner than non-chlorinated waters, but they are not without risk.
If you have redness or irritation on your skin that becomes warm, changes color and is spreading very rapidly or forming pustules, contact your doctor right away.
In addition to antibiotics, the treatment for flesh-eating bacteria involves cutting out dead tissue very quickly to keep the infection from spreading. The faster the surgeon can address the issue, the less tissue they will have to remove.