Cases of necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating bacteria, make headlines nearly every year—especially when the bacteria infects someone young. It's a disease that essentially kills off the fascia, living tissue beneath your skin that surrounds your muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. Here's what you need to know about the disease.
It usually develops in a scratch or cut. Necrotizing fasciitis usually gets into the body through a scratch or cut and grows rapidly within the wound.
It has specific symptoms. "Parents should look out for flu-like symptoms in addition to any of the following: redness or swelling over a wound that spreads very quickly, severe pain associated with the redness and swelling which may sometimes extend past the visible red area, fevers, a popping or crackling sound under the skin, numbness over the area of redness and swelling, ulcers, or a black appearance to the skin," says Kristin Dean, M.D., the associate medical director at Doctor On Demand.
It can cause serious damage—so get to the hospital quickly if you suspect necrotizing fasciitis. "If you suspect you or your child has developed symptoms suggestive of necrotizing fasciitis, do not delay seeking medical care in a local ER," says Dr. Dean. "Initiating treatment early is important." Usually, treatment involves IV antibiotics, and multiple surgeries to remove dead tissue. In the most serious and advanced cases, necrotizing fasciitis can lead to sepsis, shock, organ failure—or even death, according to the CDC.
It's still extremely rare. There's a reason that cases of necrotizing fasciitis appear on the news—like the recent case of Chase Wade, a young boy in Mississippi that developed the infection. "It is natural for parents to worry about a bacterial infection termed the 'flesh-eating bacteria,'" says Dr. Dean. "However, it is considered a relatively rare condition, with the CDC estimating between 700 to 1200 cases in the U.S. each year."
There are things you can do to minimize your risk. Dr. Dean says proper wound care is key to reducing the chances of developing necrotizing fasciitis. "Clean all minor cuts and scrapes with soap and water, cover open wounds with bandages, avoid swimming when you have an open wound, and see a doctor for wound care of more serious cuts."