What is Flesh-Eating Disease?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 01 May 2019
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Flesh-eating disease or necrotizing fasciitis is a very rare bacterial infection characterized by breakdown of skin, fat, and muscle tissue that causes flesh to look eaten away. A number of bacteria can be responsible for flesh-eating disease including Staphylococcus aureus and Group A streptococcus. Around 25% of patients with this infection die either because treatment is not provided quickly enough or because the infection progresses too rapidly for care providers to address it.

People can develop flesh-eating disease after a variety of injuries and sometimes no known injury occurs. In all cases, bacteria enter the body and begin penetrating deep into the underlying fascia, rather than remaining at the surface of the wound. The patient usually develops excruciating pain as the bacteria colonize. The infected area rapidly swells and becomes tender to the touch while the patient experiences nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Over time, the flesh will turn dark and blisters can develop.

In people with flesh-eating disease, the bacteria release toxins that act to break down organic tissue. The bacteria themselves do not actually eat the infected tissue. The infection is extremely aggressive and can progress rapidly. Some patients have been known to die within 24 hours of diagnosis, illustrating how fast the infection can move.


The first line of treatment is using broad spectrum antibiotics to kill the bacteria. One common problem in cases of flesh-eating disease is that the bacteria have resistance to antibiotics. It may be necessary to try several medications to find one that will work and in the meantime, permanent damage can occur as muscle tissue is damaged by the bacterial toxins. Surgery is also usually recommended to remove the dead tissue and clear the margins of the infection to limit the spread of the bacteria. Sometimes it may be necessary to amputate a severely damaged limb.

This rare infection periodically crops up in the news. Flesh-eating disease is quite serious, but fortunately it is not very common. People who experience early signs should seek medical attention promptly. It is helpful to document any recent history of injuries and infections and to inform medical personnel about any antibiotics the patient has taken recently. This information can be used to narrow down the possible causes of the infection to develop a treatment plan.

People can and do recover from flesh-eating disease. Some patients require reconstructive surgery and physical therapy after they recover to address the permanent soft tissue loss and damage. The more prompt and aggressive the treatment, the less severe long term damage for the patient.



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