What Is a "Flesh-Eating" Bacterial Infection?

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Read our main article on necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh-eating bacteria and flesh-eating disease »

Media reports have popularized the term flesh-eating bacteria to refer to a type of very rare but serious bacterial infection known as necrotizing fasciitis. Necrotizing fasciitis is an infection that starts in the tissues just below the skin and spreads along the flat layers of tissue (fascia) that separate different layers of soft tissue, such as muscle and fat. This dangerous and potentially deadly infection most commonly occurs in the arms, legs, and abdominal wall and is fatal in 30%-40% of cases.

Although necrotizing fasciitis may be caused by an infection with one or more than one bacterium, in most cases, the term flesh-eating bacteria has been applied to describe infections caused by the bacterium known as Streptococcus pyogenes. The term flesh-eating has been used because the bacterial infection produces toxins that destroy tissues such as muscles, skin, and fat. Streptococcus pyogenes is a member of the group A streptococci, a group of bacteria that are commonly responsible for mild sore throat (pharyngitis) and skin infections. Rarely, this form of strep bacterium causes severe illnesses such as toxic shock syndrome and necrotizing fasciitis. Most infections with group A streptococci result in mild illness and may not even produce symptoms.

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Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/17/2015

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