While cases of necrotizing fasciitis, commonly called flesh-eating bacteria, are considered rare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are between 650-850 patients with this infection worldwide each year. Despite being rare, a Beaumont woman visiting Galveston was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis last month and has undergone amputations of her hands and feet. Another patient who contracted the infection in the Gulf waters in Florida died earlier this summer. With the recent reports of low water quality in Galveston and people making last-minute summer vacation trips to beaches all along the Gulf of Mexico, it’s important to keep in mind how to potentially avoid this infection and what to do if you get it.
Necrotizing fasciitis is a bacterial infection of the skin that spreads quickly and attacks soft tissue like skin and muscle. It can attack all the way down to the bone if it isn’t treated properly, leaving large open wounds that can spread. The bacterium is usually found in warm salt water, like the Gulf of Mexico, and in ocean-dwelling animals like oysters.
The bacteria typically enter the body thorough a pre-existing wound or a wound that occurs while swimming in an area where the bacteria are present, such as cutting a foot on an oyster bed. The bacteria can introduce itself into the body through any break in the skin, however, whether that be a cut, scrape, burn, insect bite or puncture wound.
Symptoms to Watch For
The biggest issue with necrotizing fasciitis symptoms is that they can be difficult to recognize because they can seem like indications of other injuries or conditions. Look for skin that may feel warm and have red or purplish areas of swelling. Patients sometimes complain of pain or soreness that feels like a pulled muscle. The skin may also have ulcers, blisters or black spots, and patients describe the pain as severe.
The infection can cause fever and chills, decreased blood pressure, skin lesions and death. Infection spread from person to person is rare.
What to Do
First, it’s important to remember that this infection is considered rare and that those it affects the most are patients who have other health issues like cancer, diabetes, kidney disease or conditions that compromise the immune system. If you have any of these illnesses and are planning on swimming, do some research first and see if there have been any reported cases of flesh eating bacteria in the body of water you’ll be visiting. Avoid swimming with cuts or wounds.
If you experience any of the symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis, it is critical that you get to a healthcare professional immediately. The infection can spread quickly and patients will need strong antibiotics administered quickly.
Dr. Puja Sehgal is a board-certified Family Medicine physician. She works with patients to give them knowledge regarding prevention and management of illness. She develops relationships with her patients by customizing their treatment based on their beliefs and cultural practices.