Necrotizing Fasciitis (Flesh-Eating Disease)

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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What is the treatment for necrotizing fasciitis?

At the time of preliminary diagnosis, the patient needs to be hospitalized and started on intravenous antibiotics immediately. The initial choice of antibiotics can be made based upon the types of flesh-eating bacteria suspected of causing the infection, but many doctors believe that multiple antibiotics should be used at the same time to protect the patient from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), as well as infections with anaerobic bacteria, and polymicrobial infections. Antibiotic susceptibility studies, done in the laboratory after the infecting organism(s) has been isolated from the patient, can help the physician choose the best antibiotics to treat the infected individual.

A surgeon needs to be consulted immediately if necrotizing fasciitis is suspected or preliminarily diagnosed. Debridement of necrotic tissue and collection of tissue samples, needed for culture to identify the infecting organism, are done by a surgeon. The type of surgeon consulted may depend on the area of the body affected; for example, a urologic surgeon would be consulted for Fournier's gangrene. As is the case for immediate antimicrobial therapy, early surgical treatment of most cases of necrotizing fasciitis can reduce morbidity and mortality.

Many patients with necrotizing fasciitis are very sick and most require admission to an intensive-care unit. Sepsis and organ failure (renal, pulmonary, and cardiovascular systems) need to be treated aggressively to increase the patient's chance for recovery. Treatments such as insertion of a breathing tube, intravenous administration of fluids, and drugs to support the cardiovascular system may be required. Although not available in many hospitals, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (oxygen given under pressure with the patient in a specialized chamber) is sometimes used in treatment as the oxygen can inhibit or stop anaerobic bacterial growth and promote tissue recovery. This therapy does not replace antibiotics or surgical treatment. However, hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been shown by researchers to further reduce morbidity and mortality by about 10%-20% in some patients when used in conjunction with antibiotics and surgery.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/17/2016

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