Necrotizing fasciitis, the so-called “flesh-eating disease,” is a rare but serious infection. While many types of bacteria can cause this, a very severe form is caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, sometimes called “flesh-eating bacteria.”
The infection often begins like most others – through a cut or a scrape. However, unlike other infections, this one spreads very quickly as the bacteria do their damage. They grow and release a harmful substance that destroys surrounding tissue and can enter the blood stream.
Infection can also occur in surgery, childbirth, or any type of event that causes a trauma to the body. Necrotizing fasciitis is not contagious, nor is it communicable between people. The only way to get it is to become infected with the bacteria, just as you would get an infection in a cut at any other time.
The bacteria “eat away” at muscles, skin and underlying body tissues. Doctors must act fast to stop the infection before it spreads and before sepsis develops. Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.
Necrotizing fasciitis symptoms
The symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis are much like any type of infection, but they appear more rapidly and are more intense:
- Small, red, painful lump or bump on the skin
- Changes to a very painful bruise-like area and grows rapidly, sometimes in less than an hour
- The center may become black and die
- The skin may break open and ooze fluid
- Severe pain
Other symptoms may include:
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
Risk factors for necrotizing fasciitis
This type of infection, although rare, can happen to anyone at any time. Therefore, it would be important to look at anyone who may be a higher risk of developing any type of infection. These are people who:
- Share personal items, such as towels, razors, etc.
- Have depressed immune systems, such as living with HIV or cancer, or who are receiving treatment that can lower the immune system, such as chemotherapy or steroids.
- Are very young or old
- Are hospitalized or in close quarters, such as prisons and dormitories
Patients in hospitals or healthcare facilities can contract an infection through various ways, such as:
Good hygiene always and quick response to injuries may help reduce the risk of developing an infection.
By ensuring proper and frequent hand washing, you reduce your risk of infection significantly.
By cleaning out wounds as soon as they are noticed, you again reduce the risk.
Once the infection has been stopped, there should be no further problems from the infection itself. However, there may be lasting effects from the treatments, particularly if they included surgery to remove large amount of tissue or amputations.
If the infection is not treated quickly enough or properly, the result is often death.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
The information here is also available as a Sepsis Information Guide, which is a downloadable format for easier printing.
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Suggested Citation: Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Necrotizing Fasciitis. 2023. https://www.sepsis.org/sepsisand/necrotizing-fasciitis/
Updated May 30, 2023.