Flesh-Eating Disease and Sepsis: Staying Safe in the Summer

July 5, 2019

Sepsis, flesh-eating disease As beach season is well underway, the media have been sharing reports of people developing serious infections leading to sepsis. The infection that gets the most attention is necrotizing fasciitis – flesh-eating disease. In July,  a woman in Florida died after developing necrotizing fasciitis after getting a small cut on her leg while on a beach. Another woman in Florida had a small cut on her leg and developed the same infection after swimming at another beach. She survived, as did a 12-year-old girl, who also developed the infection.

One particular type of bacteria that can cause such serious infections along the Florida coast is Vibrio vulnificus. It has also been found in waters near Delaware and New Jersey. This is surprising some scientists because, up to now, this bacterium was usually found in warmer waters like in the Gulf of Mexico. But as the waters warm up due to climate change, the bacteria are now able to survive during the summer months in waters further north. Over the past couple of years, five people developed necrotizing fasciitis after cutting themselves while crabbing in Delaware Bay or after eating crabs from the area.

Some other types of bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis include Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, Clostriduium perfringens and Streptococcus pygenes, to name just a few.

But what is necrotizing fasciitis? It’s a rare infection, but very serious. It’s a very fast spreading infection that can cause major tissue damage as the bacteria “eat away” at the body’s tissues. If the infection is not caught and treated quickly enough, it can trigger sepsis. Anyone can contract the infection, but those who have weakened immune systems, have chronic illnesses (like diabetes), are elderly, or are very young are at higher risk of becoming ill.

So, what can we do about it? Do we have to stop going to the beach? Not necessarily, but we do need to take precautions to reduce our risk of infection.

One of the women who developed necrotizing fasciitis in Florida had cut herself shaving a couple of days earlier. When she went into the water, the bacteria entered her wound. If you have a wound and you are going to the beach or anywhere where the wound may come in contact with potentially contaminated water, cover the wound with a waterproof bandage, to keep it dry and safe. If you get a cut while at the beach, as did the woman in Florida who died, clean it immediately and cover it with a waterproof bandage.

Watch for signs of infection, particularly if you’ve been near or in the water. An infected cut, scrape, or blister may become red, spreading out around the wound. With necrotizing fasciitis, this can happen very quickly, spreading to a bruise-like appearance. The center of the wound will start to look black, as the tissue starts to die. There may be some discharge or pus, and people with the infection say that it is very painful. Time is of the essence in treating any infection, especially necrotizing fasciitis.

Learn more about necrotizing fasciitis by visiting our Sepsis and… library: Sepsis and Necrotizing Fasciitis. There, you will read about how else to prevent infection, risk factors, other symptoms, and prognosis. You can read some stories of people who have had necrotizing fasciitis in our Faces of Sepsis section, as well.

Summer time is fleeting in many parts of the country and it’s important to be able to get outside and take advantage of the weather. With precautions and knowledge of what to look for in terms of infections, you can keep you and your family safer.