Three words guaranteed to make everyone feel instantly squeamish? Flesh-eating bacteria. The thought of some organism you can't even see burrowing into your skin and gnawing away at you is just plain nauseating...and enough to convince you that you’re living in a real-life horror movie. (Cabin Fever, anyone? Blegh.)
Now that I’ve filled your head with all kinds of nasty images, let’s cover what flesh-eating bacteria *really* is, and how you would even contract it hypothetically. In other words, how much should you be freaking out right now?!
Okay, okay-don't panic just yet. You just need answers to the questions eating away at you (sorry), and you don't have to look too far for all the info. Here, everything you need to know about the signs and symptoms of flesh-eating bacteria infections (a.k.a. the stuff of your nightmares)-and how to stay safe and healthy.
What is flesh-eating bacteria exactly?
First off, the term "flesh-eating" is a bit of a misnomer. There is no such thing as flesh-eating bacteria in the literal sense, according to Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. But there are types of bacteria that can cause a serious, fast-moving infection known as necrotizing fasciitis. This happens when certain types of bacteria gain access to the deeper layers of your skin and aggressively and quickly destroy the tissue. (That's where the colloquial phrasing "flesh-eating" bacteria comes from.)
There are several different kinds of bacteria that fall into this camp. The commonly known types:
Group A Streptococcus
Yup, a lotta hard-to-pronounce words. FWIW, group A Streptococcus (yes, the bacteria that's also behind strep throat) is believed to be the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But let's be *crystal* clear here: Just because you, say, get strep throat does not mean you're going to develop necrotizing fasciitis. Most infections caused by the group of bacteria above are fairly common (think: food poisoning or stomach issues) and not nearly as serious as necrotizing fasciitis. This infection is freaky, yes, but very rare. In fact, per the CDC, only about 700 cases of necrotizing fasciitis occur each year in the United States.
That being said, the potential for severe infection is there if the pathogen enters your bloodstream. In the rare cases of necrotizing fasciitis, the infection most commonly begins by entering the bloodstream via broken skin-but we'll get to that.
Where is flesh-eating bacteria found?
Flesh-eating bacteria cases pop up more in the summer because the little guys are often found in warm bodies of water. That's also why they can be found in raw shellfish, many of which reside in warm or brackish water. These kinds of infections are more common in southern states, like Florida and Texas, though that may be changing.
A 2019 report revealed a higher-than-usual rate of Vibrio vulnificus infections in patients treated at Cooper University Health Care in New Jersey. Five people were sickened over the course of two summers after coming into contact with infected crabs from the Delaware Bay area (all had pre-existing health conditions, FYI).
- Atox Bio (@dteleman) May 27, 2019
“We are seeing some of the impact of climate change [with scenarios like this],” explains Aileen M. Marty, MD, director of Florida International University’s Health Travel Medicine program. “Like all organisms, flesh-eating bacteria has a preferred temperature, but now those temperatures are reaching further up north as the water warms.”
Outside of bodies of water, flesh-eating bacteria can be found just living on our skin even when you don't know it, in soil, and on uncooked meat and poultry.
How would I even contract flesh-eating bacteria if I'm near it?
It’s basically a combination of exposure and opportunity. Skin injuries (everything from cuts and scrapes to abrasions, surgical incisions, and open wounds) are one of the primary ways for troublesome bacteria to enter your bloodstream, says Armen Arshakyan, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Saban Community Clinic in Los Angeles. So, if you go swimming with an open wound, ingest fresh or salt water, or eat raw shellfish that's got the bacteria in it, you're technically at risk of developing necrotizing fasciitis (again, sorry).
Keep in mind that we’re surrounded by a lot of these bacteria every single day without any issue. Sometimes all it takes is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Dr. Marty says these bacteria also rely on the vulnerability of their host, meaning they’re more likely to infect you if a) you are exposed to a lot of the bacteria in a short period of time and b) there’s a way for the bacteria to break through your natural defenses (either because you have a deficient immune system or a weakness in your skin barrier) and it accesses your bloodstream.
So I can be on the lookout, what are the symptoms of flesh-eating bacteria?
With skin-based infections, the symptoms will be...hard to ignore. “You might have redness or localized skin swelling,” says Dr. Arshakyan. “The site could be painful or warm to the touch, and with staph infections, there might be a [pus-filled] discharge.”
The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) indicates that you could also experience common flu symptoms, like fever, body aches, and sore throat in the early stages of necrotizing fasciitis. As the infection spreads, the pain often becomes severe, and may seem disproportionate to the original injury (i.e. you had a minor cut on your foot but the pain is agonizing).
If you’ve ingested a flesh-eating bacteria like Vibrio vulnificus and are experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, you’ll feel like you have a nasty stomach bug: watery diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting, and chills. Symptoms usually begin about 24 hours after infection and typically resolve after three days, per the CDC-unless the bacteria enters your bloodstream through your intestinal tract (in which case you may have a much bigger problem).
And remind me again how dangerous flesh-eating bacteria really is?
We’re not going to sugarcoat it: a flesh-eating bacteria infection needs to be taken seriously. Left untreated, it can lead to tissue death, loss of limbs, organ failure, and even death. “Any time a patient has a necrotizing skin infection, it’s a life-threatening medical emergency,” says Dr. Adalja.
This is partly because of the risk of sepsis, a chain reaction of inflammation triggered by your body’s chemical response to fighting the severe infection. Per the Mayo Clinic, sepsis most commonly arises in infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system-like people with diabetes, kidney or liver problems, or who are undergoing cancer treatments. However, sepsis can be deadly even for totally healthy people, Dr. Marty notes.
Oh, necrotizing fasciitis is not known to be contagious-don't worry.
If I get necrotizing fasciitis, how can I get rid of it?
Treatment for flesh-eating bacteria typically involves antibiotics and a course of immune-modulating medications, Dr. Marty says. These help your body get rid of the pathogen while limiting the amount of damage done.
Unfortunately, there are cases where the only life-saving option is surgery or possibly amputation to fully remove the infection or damaged tissue. That’s why you should head straight to your doctor if you suspect something’s not right. Dr. Marty says seeing a health care provider immediately leads to the best outcomes, especially if the provider asks the right diagnostic questions, like where you’ve been lately, what food you've consumed, and what you could have been exposed to.
“The sooner it’s recognized, the better chance you have to recover without having long term problems or fatality,” she says.
And the best prevention tips are...?
As the CDC states, a little common sense and good wound care can go a long way. If you have a cut, clean it out properly with soap and water, or see your doctor if it's large and deep.
Also, if you have an open wound or broken skin, it's in your best interest to skip that pool party or avoid spending time in the ocean or lake until it heals. Just stay on dry land to avoid giving bacteria that might be lurking in those warm-water areas the opportunity to use your cut as an entry point.
But the reality is, there are only so many precautions you can take. The most important thing you can do is seek medical attention if any necrotizing fasciitis symptoms present.
The bottom line: Don't stop living your life out of a fear of flesh-eating bacteria. Your chances of being exposed to a bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis *and* actually developing the infection are very slim. That being said, always seek medical care ASAP if you have any questionable symptoms that may be related to an infection, as swift treatment is crucial when it comes to necrotizing fasciitis.
('You Might Also Like',)