Everything You Need to Know About Necrotizing Fasciitis – the Flesh-Eating Bacteria That Claimed Aimee Copeland's Four Limbs

Aimee Copeland contracted the rare flesh-eating bacteria in 2012 after a swimming accident

Photo: Jack Kearse/Emory University

Aimee Copeland‘s life has dramatically changed over the past four years. In May 2012, the then 24-year-old cut her leg in a fall from a homemade zip-line into the Little Tallapoosa River in Carrollton, Georgia.

Copeland received 22 surgical staples to close the deep gash and was sent home from the hospital. But three days later, she woke up to a terrifying sight. Her left leg had rotted to her thigh.

Unbeknownst to the University of West Georgia grad student, she had contracted necrotizing fasciitis, an aggressive flesh-eating bacterial infection. Her arms and legs were amputated as a life-saving measure.

For more on Aimee Copeland’s recovery, pick up a copy of PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands Friday

Although rare, necrotizing fasciitis can spread quickly and lead to debilitating results. Here is everything you need to know about the disease.

What is it?

WATCH: Quadruple Amputee Aimee Copeland Shows How She’s Mastered Cooking – and Applying Mascara!

Necoritizing fasciitis – commonly known as flesh-eating disease – results in the decaying of the body’s soft tissue, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders. Bacteria attacks the skin and the tissue beneath it (fascia, which surrounds muscles, nerves, fat and blood vessels), often spreading quickly – sometimes at the rate of an inch an hour – and leading to toxic shock syndrome, which causes the organs to shut down.

How is it contracted?

Bacteria enters the body through an open wound or some sort of external injury, or, sometimes through a punctured or sexual organ, according to NORD. After infection, the bacteria spreads through the soft tissue. Several different types of bacteria can cause the disease, including streptococcus, the bacteria that causes strep throat, and others found in soil, animals and nature. Copeland was infected by Aeromonas hydrophila, a bacterium found in fresh or brackish water.

What are the symptoms?

Immediate side effects include high fever, nausea, diarrhea and chills. As it progresses, the skin becomes bright red, swollen and shiny, before blistering and, in worst-case scenarios, becoming open wounds. Symptoms typically start within hours after an injury and can include severe pain or soreness, similar to that of a “pulled muscle.” The skin may be warm with red or purplish areas of swelling that spread rapidly, according to the CDC.

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How is it treated?

According to the CDC, the first step in treating the flesh-eating disease is intravenous antibiotics. The antibiotics don’t provide full coverage, however, and often surgical removal of dead tissue is necessary – and crucial.

Treatment depends on how far the necrotizing fasciitis has progressed.

What precautions can be taken to prevent it?

Chances of contracting necrotizing fasciitis are rare, especially if you’re healthy and have a strong immune system, according to the CDC.

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Practicing good hygiene is crucial in prevention, as well as properly caring for any and all wounds – which includes keeping them covered with dry, clean bandages. Those with open wounds and active infections should avoid bodies of water, especially swimming pools and hot tubs.

The CDC notes that necrotizing fasciitis is rarely spread from person to person.

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