Gangrene Causes and Risk Factors

What is gangrene?

Gangrene means death of a body tissue due to lack of blood supply (and therefore oxygen) or a bacterial infection. Gangrene can affect the skin or organs, such as the gallbladder or intestine.

There are several types of gangrene.

  • Dry gangrene typically affects parts of the body farthest from the heart (toes and fingers). The tissue dries up and falls off. Dry gangrene usually develops slowly and is most common in people with atherosclerosis or other diseases affecting the blood circulation.
  • Wet gangrene occurs when the tissue becomes infected with bacteria. The tissue becomes swollen and blisters can form and leak fluid. Diabetes mellitus is a risk factor for wet gangrene.
  • Gas gangrene is caused by bacteria called Clostridium, which thrive in areas with low oxygen and produce gas bubbles. It often affects deep muscle tissues.
  • Fournier's gangrene is a type of wet gangrene that affects the genital area, typically in men with diabetes.

What causes gangrene?

Anything that decreases blood supply to a tissue can cause gangrene (for example, trauma, frostbite, and a poor circulatory system).

What are risk factors for gangrene?

  • Diabetes: The greatest risk factor for gangrene is diabetes. High blood sugar over a long period of time (years) can damage blood vessels and decrease blood supply to tissues.
  • Age: Gangrene is more frequently found in older people.

Other risk factors include smoking, hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), severe injuries, intravenous drug abuse, and Raynaud's disease (spasm of blood vessels in the fingers and toes, typically in response to cold).

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Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care


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