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Recently we have been exposed to many cases of flesh-eating bacteria, scientifically named necrotizing fasciitis, which eats away at viable skin tissue. While the recent explosion in cases in the United States is something we should all keep an eye on, extreme flesh-eating bacteria cases are rare and not as commonplace as many are suggesting.
Many factors contribute to extreme cases of necrotizing fasciitis. Most people are able to ward off the bacteria that causes the infection (thanks to their immune systems). While many types of bacteria can cause necrotizing flesh, or work together to cause it, the most common forms are Staphylococcus aureus (Staph infection) and Streptococcus, which is known for causing strep throat.
Risk of severe flesh-eating infections increases for those with:
- Weak immune systems including the elderly and those taking immune-suppressing drugs - Chronic health problems including diabetes, cancer, liver disease and kidney disease - Existing cuts including surgical wounds and insect bites - Current or recent contractors of viral infections and chicken pox – rash-causing infections - Users of steroid medications
While most severe cases of flesh-eating bacteria occur in those with compromised immune systems, there are cases where the bacteria ravages young, healthy adults (e.g. Aimee Copeland, a recent case publicized by the news). Flesh-eating bacteria can also enter through wounds in the intestine - which tend to be a hot-spot for these types of bacteria - and through areas of muscle strains and bruises, even if the skin is unopened.
As seen by recent cases, necrotizing fasciitis can result in amputations and even death. These results, along with the unpleasant effect it has on flesh, is what are scary to us. Luckily, if our immune systems are unable to vanquish this gross affliction, most cases are successfully treated with antibiotics. To enhance the chances of clearing up the infection, before radical steps must be taken, one wants to get to a hospital if deep and constant pain of the limbs and bone structure occurs. Other symptoms may include severely swollen and red appendages or areas of the skin, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea - all of which can be attributed to a multitude of other diseases, but the deep pain accompanying them is the tell-tale sign. Some may also experience random bruising in the painful swollen areas.
Necrotizing fasciitis can be contracted from open wounds that come in contact with ocean water, raw saltwater fish, crabs and raw oysters. You can also pick up this infection from intestinal surgery sites or gunshot wounds in the intestinal area. To prevent becoming a host to this bacterium, always wash your hands. If you receive a cut, scrape, burn or bite; clean the wound well and treat with alcohol and cover. Do this especially if your cut has come from an outdoor source. If you are a member of a sports team, never share towels and keep up on good hygiene practices. Keep an alcohol-based gel (hand sanitizer) handy for instances where immediate washing is not an option.
Most of all don't panic. Necrotizing fasciitis is seen in about 10,000-12,000 (reported) cases in the U.S. per year, most being significantly less severe than the few cases in the news today. So instead of canceling your summer plans, add in some simple hygiene changes and always keep medical supplies handy when outdoors. Remember to go to the hospital immediately if you experience any symptoms so the physicians can battle the infection early on for best results.
Sources: WebMD.com, HealthDay via philly.com/health with stats and information provided by Dr. Pascal James Imperato dean of School of Public Healthy at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and Dr. Kenneth Bromberg director of Vaccine Research Center at The Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City.