Flesh-Eating Bacteria: What You Need to Know

Three simple words make up the stuff of nightmares and horror movies—Flesh. Eating. Bacteria. The good news is since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control only reported 700–1,100 annual incidents in the United States, and according to the data, numbers are not rising. While a very, very small percentage of the U.S. population will have to seek treatment for this type of infection, we can rest assured it’s not prevalent.

“The CDC tracks many types of bacterial infections in order to monitor trends,” said Gina Carnduff, BSN, RN, system director of Infection Prevention for Memorial Health System. “There have been no nationwide indicators to warrant a newly-elevated concern for flesh-eating bacteria, and that data supports our experiences locally.”

Still curious? Here’s what you need to know.

Causes
Flesh-eating bacteria, otherwise known as necrotizing fasciitis, can stem from several types of bacteria. The most common and well known is group A Streptococcus. Infections from group A strep are common and usually easy to treat. In incidences of necrotizing fasciitis, however, the bacteria infect layers of tissue, and the toxins from the bacteria cause tissue to die. Instances are usually random, rarely spread person-to-person. Most people who are infected have other chronic health problems that reduce their immune system response and make them more susceptible to infection. These conditions could include diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, etc.

Symptoms
Symptoms vary but may include muscle soreness; warmth, discoloration or swelling; pain disproportionate to how the skin looks; fever and chills; and vomiting. These symptoms are also indicators of other health concerns. Your primary care physician is your best ally to identify the root of these symptoms.

Treatment
Proper diagnosis is the first step in rare instances of flesh-eating bacteria. Once diagnosed, intravenous antibiotics curb the infection. The most drastic cases can require surgery and may become life threatening.

Prevention
Most bacterial skin infections begin with an open wound. Prevent all types of skin infections with common-sense steps and basic hygiene.

  • Wash hands or use hand sanitizer frequently
  • Treat small breaks in the skin with normal first aid procedures
  • Avoid hot tubs, pools and other bodies of water until wound is healed

“Skin infections, especially when associated with shocking words like ‘flesh-eating,’ can spark a lot of concern—understandably so,” Carnduff said. “It’s a great reason to build a relationship with a primary care physician who can answer your questions and, if appropriate, ease your fears.”

Gina Carnduff, BSN, RN, is the system director of Infection Prevention for Memorial Health System. She monitors local and national health trends to protect patients, visitors and employees at the eight Memorial affiliates from the spread of infection. /em>

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