Every year, news stories appear of people killed by flesh-eating bacteria, also known as necrotizing fasciitis. Many cases are contracted during recreational water activities, though some recent cases have been linked to manicures and nail salons. Here are four fast facts about flesh-eating bacteria.
Fact #1: It Has Multiple Causes
He said the illness is caused by multiple bacteria or fungi, including Streptococcus bacteria and Clostridium bacteria. Group A Streptococcus (group A strep) is the most common cause of the illness.
Vibrio vulnificus may also cause the illness. Vibrio vulnificus infections seem limited to coastal areas with warm water where the organisms are found associated with seafood and contaminated water, Dr. Davis said.
Fact #2: Bacteria Enter Through a Break in the Skin
According to Dr. Davis, if you have a cut, scrape, surgical wound, puncture wound, or insect bite, bacteria can enter your system. The bacteria causes necrosis or death of tissue and fasciitis, which is inflammation of the fascia.
Fact #3: The Illness Is Serious, But Also Rare
Necrotizing fasciitis needs to be diagnosed and treated early to reduce the risk of serious complications like sepsis, organ failure, shock, or even death, Dr. Davis said. Flesh-eating bacteria is treated in the hospital with IV antibiotics and surgery.
As serious as the illness is, it is rare. According to studies in recent years in the Annals of Surgery and The Journal of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, necrotizing fasciitis affects about 0.4 in every 100,000 people annually in the U.S.
The CDC tracks and reports illness due to invasive group A strep disease, which includes necrotizing fasciitis. The CDC reports that since 2010, there have been approximately 700 to 1,200 cases of necrotizing fasciitis annually in the U.S. due to group A strep, its most common cause.
Fact #4: Common Sense Can Reduce Your Risk
Check your skin and feet frequently, especially if you have diabetes or weakened immunity, according to Dr. Davis. Keep wounds, including surgical wounds, clean and dry. Do not go into the water if you have an open wound.
These bacteria can be transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact or from sharing personal items, Dr. Davis said. Avoid sharing personal grooming items like towels and razors.
"Practices such as hand washing, checking extremities for cuts or wounds if you have diabetes, avoiding physical contact with people who carry (infection), and good hygiene practices help prevent initial infections that may lead to flesh-eating disease," Dr. Davis writes.