Flesh-eating bacteria is deadly but rare — here's what you need to know

Abby Haglage
Coastline Beach Ocean waves with foam on the sand. Top view from drone
Multiple reports nationwide of flesh-eating bacteria have beachgoers worried. But the CDC says the infection is both rare and preventable. (Photo: Getty Images)

When Brittany Carey sent her son off for a day at the beach in June with her parents, she never expected the trip would land him in the hospital. But, according to CBS Baltimore, after he returned from swimming at the Maryland seashore, Carey noticed “red spots” developing on her son’s body, alongside open wounds that seemed to be getting worse.

In the hospital, according to a graphic Facebook post Carey put up Saturday, her son was quickly diagnosed with Vibrio, a bacteria found in raw seafood, and put on antibiotics. While he is thankfully recovering, his story is just one of several in the last few weeks regarding what’s known as “flesh-eating bacteria.” A 77-year-old reportedly died after contracting the infection, following an apparent fall on a Florida beach.

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While the reports have understandably set off alarm bells among the general public, it’s important to get the facts about “flesh-eating bacteria” before deeming it a legitimate threat to all beachgoers. Ahead of the holiday weekend, here’s what you need to know.

The official name is “necrotizing fasciitis.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “flesh-eating bacteria” is a term used to describe necrotizing fasciitis (NF), a “bacterial infection that spreads quickly in the body.” Medicine.net notes that it’s typically an infection of the soft tissue, “located in fascial planes of connective tissue.”

It can be caused by multiple types of bacteria.

Necrotizing fasciitis itself is a blanket term for what are actually a series of different infections, which occur when an open wound comes in contact with specific types of bacteria. The majority of these infections, according to the CDC, are caused by Group A streptococcus, but it can also be caused bacteria called Vibrio.

Symptoms can be “confusing” and occur rapidly.

After contact with the skin, the CDC says that the infection can “spread very quickly” and present in different ways. Immediate symptoms include “red or swollen area of skin, severe pain, and fever,” while later symptoms include “ulcers, blisters, or black spots on the skin, changes in the color of the skin, pus or oozing from the infected area, fatigue, diarrhea or nausea.”

Acting fast is key.

When symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis occur, patients should immediately go to an emergency room. Doctors can treat the infection with antibiotics and surgery, but an infection left untreated can be fatal. Most people who acquire the infection have existing health problems, such as diabetes or kidney disease, and an average of one in three infected will die.

It is very rare.

Sensational headlines may have you and your family worrying that flesh-eating bacteria is awaiting you at every beach, but that would be incorrect. While the exact number of cases per year is difficult to measure, the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation says “experts [agree] that there are between 1 and 5 cases of NF caused by group A strep per 100,000 people.”

There are ways to prevent it.

While it may seem terrifying to imagine this bacteria entering your system, doctors say there are ways to reduce your chances of becoming infected. “Clean all minor cuts and injuries that break the skin (like blisters and scrapes) with soap and water,” the CDC writes. “Clean and cover draining or open wounds with clean, dry bandages until they heal.”

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