What to Know About Necrotizing Fasciitis — the Flesh-Eating Bacteria Showing Up at Beaches

The disease is rare — just 20,000 cases a year — but can spread quickly with deadly results

Tropical paradise - palm trees on white sand beach
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Every summer, as the weather heats up and people head to beaches, pools and lakes to cool down, scary reports come in of people who have developed necrotizing fasciitis — a life-threatening flesh-eating bacteria that typically develops in the water.

The disease is very rare, with just 20,000 cases a year, and people should not spend their lives fearing the water — but there are a few facts and tips to keep in mind to avoid the fast-acting, potentially deadly condition.

What Is It?

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 leads 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. In the case of a 12-year-old girl who developed necrotizing fasciitis in June, the bacteria entered her body through a scrape on her toe that she got from skateboarding a few days earlier.

It is also more likely to affect people with compromised immune systems, like those with cancer, kidney disease and liver problems.

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.

RELATED VIDEO: 8-Year-Old Dies From Rare Flesh-Eating Bacteria: Doctors ‘Kept Cutting and Hoping’

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, but the key to stopping the disease and saving someone’s life is to get to the hospital immediately.

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, the CDC says.

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.

How severe is the risk?

Low. Necrotizing fasciitis is very rare, with only an estimated 20,000 cases a year, and most swimmers should feel safe to go in the water. But studies indicate that climate change is having an effect on flesh-eating bacteria, and thanks to warmer waters, it’s spreading up the eastern seaboard. According to a study published June 18, it was previously found primarily along the Gulf Coast, where water temperatures stay above 55 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, but between 2017-2018, there were five cases further north, from Delaware and New Jersey.

The researchers want clinicians to be aware of the possible risk, and to look out for the bacteria while diagnosing patients.

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