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Have you ever heard of the “flesh eating disease”?

As an ex registered nurse, I have helped to treat about three patients with the “flesh eating disease”. The medical term for this is “necrotizing fasciitis”. It is not the flesh that is being “eaten” but rather the fascia that is underneath the skin. Fascia is the connective tissue, mostly collagen, beneath the skin. The fascia attaches itself to the muscles and other internal organs in order to stabilize them.

Necrotizing fasciitis is a rare disease of the subcutaneous tissus  (and occaionally organs themselves) mostly caused by “Streptococcus” of the group A of bacterias (“Streptococcus pyogenes) but also by other bacterias such as “Vibrio vulnificus”, “Clostridium perfringens” and “Fragilis bacterioids”.

These bacteria are in the case of necrotizing fasciitis called “flesh eating” but this wording is incorrect. In reality, the bacterias do not eat flesh, but rather release toxins which can be deadly for living human cells. They can also, because of their effect on the immune system, produce free radicals. Necrotizing fasciitis is a medical emergency which can evolve very rapidly and can be fatal. Every year in Canada, there are 90 to 200 reported cases of necrotizing fasciitis of which 20 to 30% cause death. In the United Kingdom, there are a reported 500 cases reported every year. There is, as of yet, no vaccine for necrotizing fasciitis.

The reason I am writing this post is that there has been (in the US if I remember) a reported case of necrotizing fasciitis due to an insect bite. But usually the disease starts by the bacteria entering through either a wound (whether it be a splinter, a scrape, a cut or abrasion, or post surgery etc.). The bacteria then lodges itself it the fascia that covers the muscles which eventually kills those muscles with the toxins release. The dead tissues then gives the appearance of an “eaten flesh”.

The transmission is either with contact with persons with “Streptococcus pyogenes”, or by respiratory drops or even from the person itself. Persons also can carry “Streptococcus pyogenes” without developping the disease. There are several strains of “Streptococcus pyogenes” One of them brings on “necrotizing fasciitis” while others cause throat infection, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever etc.

At the beginning of the disease, the symptoms consist of muscular pains, fever, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea and general malaise (just as the beginning of a flu). At the beginning, the onset of localized pain (at the site of the first part of the fascia infected), is disproportional compared to the skin cut or abrasion etc. The disease then progresses and then the tissus start to swell within a few hours. Inflammation signs can develop rapidly such as redness, oedema (swelling) and heat radiating through the skin. The skin near the affected area becomes red, purplish, mottled with extreme swelling and the skin itself shows areas of necrosis. All these symptoms can appear and evolve within anywhere between 12-24 hours.

The diagnosis of “necrotizing fasciitis” can be difficult at first because usually the skin appears to be normal at the beginning. There is no evidence of skin infection. But the bacteria continues to wreck havoc and every seconds counts in the case of “necrotizing fasciitis”. Treatment has to be instituted as soon as possible with massive doses of antibiotics because complications are either invasive, bring on schock or can be deadly.

Because the tissues underneath the skin are being attacked by the toxins of the bacteria, they become necrotic and die. There will probably be surgery to remove the necrotic areas and even amputation of either an arm or a leg, just like the patients that I treated. There is no reversal for necrotic tissu, only debridement can be done or an amputation. Even if the person does not have an amputation, it will probably have to go through skin grafting to replace the tissus that she lost.

As there is already a large percentage of the population who already carry the bacteria responsible for “necrotizing fasciitis” without causing any problem (and also without even knowing it), it is basically impossible to stop the spread of contamination. The only measures of prevention is to clean and disinfect cuts or abrasions (even minor ones) well. If there is redness around the wound and that it is particularly painful, consult a doctor or go to an emergency department right away, take antibiotics if you have been in direct contact with a person who has “necrotizing fasciitis”.

Now, I want to add these words. I wrote this article only for information purposes and this does not replace your doctor’s diagnosis or another health professional.

What do you think?

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Written by HistoryGal

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39 Comments

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    • Yep it is and it is contagious if you touch or interact with the patient. I had to wear gown, gloves, mask every time I had to enter an isolation room with one of these patients and that is even after surgery for amputation until they were declared free of the specific Streptoccoque. BTW thank you for visiting, reading, commenting and up voting. I have not seen that much of you lately? Hope everything is fine?

        • Oh they have antibiotics to treat the infection but the timing sucks. Most of the time the patients seek a doctor too late or the emergency does not know what it is dealing with or… or… It is the timing that is uttermost important. You have to be pretty quick to start aggressive antibiotic treatment as soon as the infection starts blowing off. We do not give pre-infection antibiotics to everybody on the globe to prevent this disease.

  1. Some diseases are very strange. This one is quite fatal if immediate medical care is not sought. Can’t there be a way a person can be tested for any disease at one sitting to find out if he is infected with a disease.

    • No, I do not think so unless maybe it is an inherited tendency to a disease like hypertension, diabetes etc. The flesh eating disease is opportunistic and sometimes ingrained, but there is no test to determine if you will suffer from it. Thank you for reading, writing your interesting comment, up voting and deciding to follow little old me. I appreciate it very much

    • I am sorry in having scared you Ellie. It was not my intention, although I do have to agree that this condition is ghouly sounding and looking. As an ex registered nurse, I have dealt with a wide variety of diseases, conditions etc. The only reason that I have written this particular post was because I had glimpsed on the news that an insect bite brought it on and this was a first for me. Again, I apologize but still thank you for your going above and beyond the call of duty by reading my post and up voting for it despite your scare.

  2. One of my friends had it. He contacted it 10 years ago from San Diego Bay. He was a lead guitarists playing locally, he had to have his finger amputated. He still plays.
    He said he had a problem on friday, didnt think much about it, by sat he was at the hospital, by monday they were removing the finger.

    • Yes it is. As an ex nurse, I had to work with these patients in an isolation room, with gowns, hair covering, mask, boots and gloves as it is contagious when the skin is open. As for the patients after surgery without a limb, I can only pray for them.

      • It’s sad …
        Hope some day some genius invent something that can help cure this …

        it sounds rather easy to be in contact with such bacteria

        And of course, they’ll thank you for taking the risk to be with them 🙂

  3. Did not know what your occupation was. Good to know now. I am familiar with the name as I worked in the medical field for years. And I watch a lot of medical shows on tv and they have talked about this horrific disease.

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