In May, a flight from Spain to the Netherlands had to make an emergency landing because of the overpowering body odor of a man on board the plane. One month later, he died, and it was revealed that his smell was not due to poor hygiene, but because of a bacterial infection called necrosis.
Andrey Suchilin, a Russian guitarist, had developed tissue necrosis during a vacation in Spain. And because his health insurance had expired, Suchilin was unable to get proper medical care.
Necrosis is the death of living cells or tissue, and can develop from infections, improper wound care, an injury, frostbite or circulation problems, Dr. Travis Stork, an ER physician, host of The Doctors and member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, explains.
“Tissue necrosis, which was present in this case, begins with redness, pain and tenderness, swelling, and warmth of the affected area,” Stork, who did not treat Suchilin, says. “Skin can darken and turn purplish, sometimes developing ulcers, blisters or black spots. Chills, fever and vomiting may also occur.”
Necrosis can develop into “a serious bacterial infection that destroys tissue under the skin,” he says. “It is very aggressive and if untreated, deadly.”
The disease is also easily identifiable by its smell.
“A hallmark of tissue necrosis is odor,” Stork says. “When tissue is injured, bacteria move in and begin to degrade that tissue. As they break down the tissue the cells release chemicals that have a foul odor. The strength of the wound’s odor is often used by physicians to assess the severity of necrosis and determine treatment.”
Suchilin wrote in a Facebook post on May 30, two days after he was taken off the plane, that the doctors in Spain misdiagnosed him, and said that he just had “an ordinary beach infection.” One day later, his wife wrote that he was in intensive care in critical condition.
Stork says that with immediate treatment, doctors can stop necrosis from spreading.
“The tissue destroyed by necrosis can’t be salvaged, but if identified early enough patients with tissue necrosis can be treated,” he says. “A wound with any necrotic tissue will not heal, so the damaged tissue needs to be removed as soon as possible through a process called debridement. The patient should also receive antibiotics, often intravenously, to stop the spread of bacteria.”
Unfortunately, in Suchilin’s case, he was unable to get medical treatment in time, and the necrosis moved to his kidneys, heart and lungs. By June 25, he had died.
Stork says that it is rare for someone with necrosis to die, but that it again is all about getting immediate treatment. To avoid developing the condition, he advises maintaining good hygiene.
“Treat any wound promptly, no matter how small. Wash your hands and the area regularly with soap and change bandages regularly. When you have a wound, try to avoid places where bacteria can live, like pools, oceans, lakes and hot tubs,” he says.
And if something looks off, it’s best to see a doctor.
“Sometimes, infections like necrotizing fasciitis don’t look that scary initially because necrosis occurs under the skin,” Stork says. “That’s why if you have unexplained pain, redness, swelling or other concerning symptoms, I always tell people to get it checked out sooner rather than later.”