What Is a "Flesh-Eating" Bacterial Infection?
Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD, William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Media reports have popularized the term "flesh-eating bacteria" to refer to a 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 (known as fascia) that separate different layers of soft tissue, such as muscle and fat. This dangerous infection is most common 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 responsible for mild cases of sore throat(pharyngitis) and skin infections, as well as rare, severe illnesses such as toxic shock syndromeand necrotizing fasciitis. Most infections with group A streptococci result in mild illness and may not even produce symptoms.