Its name alone is the stuff of nightmares, and the stories about flesh-eating bacteria are worse.
Just hours after stepping out of the water, a victim is overtaken by intense pain. Within days, they’ve undergone emergency surgery. Even with modern medical treatment, their odds of survival are about two in three.
So far this year in Florida, there have been five publicly reported cases of this disease, which doctors call necrotizing fasciitis. Among them was a 12-year-old Indiana girl who contracted the illness on a family vacation to the Gulf Coast city of Destin.
Despite their fear factor, these infections shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the outdoors this summer, says Ravindra Patel, MD, an AdventHealth doctor who is board-certified in general surgery, wound care and hyperbaric medicine.
“The point is not to scare people out of the water, but to educate them about how to take steps to prevent necrotizing fasciitis and get medical help immediately when symptoms appear,” he says.
These five facts about flesh-eating bacteria can help you stay safe this summer.
1. Many types of bacteria can cause necrotizing fasciitis bacteria.
There isn’t a single bacterium responsible for this disease, but rather one of several dozen. Most of them are not particularly rare.
“These bacteria aren’t strangers to us; they’re neither friend nor foe but thrive on your skin,” Dr. Patel says. The most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis is group A strep, the same bacteria that causes strep throat.
This bacteria is commonly found on the skin, but you shouldn’t lose sleep worrying about it. Even though this bacteria is a routine visitor, it’s incredibly rare for it to cause necrotizing fasciitis.
2. People with weakened immune systems are more at risk.
The immune system is our best defense against bacteria of all stripes. So people whose immunity has been weakened are more likely to contract necrotizing fasciitis.
Dr. Patel says those with the following conditions may be more vulnerable:
- Certain Medications That Weaken the Immune System
- Liver Disease (Including from Hepatitis C)
- Organ Transplant
He’s not saying people with these conditions should stay out of the water. But they should stay out of the water if they have an open cut or sore.
It’s also important to note that even people with healthy immune systems can get necrotizing fasciitis.
3. Quick treatment is crucial — don’t delay when these symptoms strike.
From the moment bacteria begin colonizing the fascia — the thin layer of tissue over the muscles — they begin to spread quickly.
“Once they get into a wound, cut or scrape, they multiply, sucking up oxygen and releasing toxins,” Dr. Patel says. “As the tissue dies, the bacteria spreads along the fascia in a rapid, fire-like manner.”
One of the first and most noteworthy signs of necrotizing fasciitis is pain, and it’s not your run-of-the-mill muscle pain.
“The pain is out of proportion to what you are seeing,” Dr. Patel says. A California woman who had necrotizing fasciitis in her foot told her TV stationthat on a scale from one to 10 her pain was an 11.
“It felt like someone had poured acid on my foot,” she said. Other symptoms include tenderness, fever or a red or swollen area of skin. The girl from Indiana was advised to go straight to the emergency room after her mom reported she had a fever and a swollen leg.
The key, Dr. Patel says, is not to wait and see.
“Don’t trivialize it. Even minutes make a difference.”
4. High-tech treatment can stop necrotizing fasciitis.
After a patient undergoes standardized surgical therapy and is stabilized (meaning they have steady vital signs but still could be in danger) they would benefit from a high-tech treatment that minimizes repetitive surgery causing major disfigurement and enhances recovery.
“It’s called hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and it’s available at our local hospitals,” Dr. Patel says. In a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, a person breathes 100% oxygen (about five times the level of normal air) at higher than usual pressure.
This pushes more oxygen into the blood, which can prevent tissue death. If the bacteria are like a wildfire, oxygen is like water. If necessary, a person can have multiple hyperbaric oxygen treatments.
5. Good wound care habits can prevent it.
These bacteria need a way past your skin — usually a scrape, cut or other injury — before they can infect you. The 12-year-old from Indiana, for example, probably contracted the bacteria through a scrape in her toe she had gotten from skateboarding.
That means if you have an open cut, cleaning it and covering it properly will help prevent an infection, normal or necrotizing.
If you have an open cut or scrape (especially if your immune system is weakened) it’s best to avoid hot tubs, pools and natural bodies of water.
(Click here to learn more about to learn more about wound care.)
“Go out, and enjoy your summer,” Dr. Patel says. “But if you do have open wounds, then be a little more cautious. Clean up your wound and dress it and you should be fine.”
At AdventHealth, we believe enjoying the outdoors is a part of whole-person health. Part of that means giving you the information you need to swim, run or barbeque with confidence.
We invite you to learn more about how AdventHealth partners with patients to help them maximize their physical, mental and spiritual health.