How to Watch Out for 'Flesh-Eating' Bacteria This Summer

Multiple kinds of bacteria can cause this dangerous condition.

ByABC News
June 26, 2015, 12:37 PM

— -- A potentially deadly bacteria made headlines again this week after a Florida man reportedly died from an infection related to vibrio vulnificus, sometimes referred to as a "flesh-eating" bacteria.

But state health officials balked at attributing the death to "flesh-eating" bacteria, causing some confusion. Officials explained that the man did die of an infection related to vibrio vulnificus, but it did not lead to necrotizing fasciitis -- the medical term for a "flesh-eating" infection.

It turns out that vibrio vulnificus is one of many kinds of bacteria that can lead to necrotizing fasciitis -- a dangerous infection in which the fascia or “cellophane” like wrapper around the muscles becomes infected, which can result in a patient needing amputation to survive.

For those concerned about the infection, experts said there a steps people can take to reduce the risk and specific signs that should prompt you to seek medical attention immediately. Additionally, they pointed out the infection is still very rare.

Many kinds of bacteria can lead to necrotizing fasciitis, including Streptococcus (group A strep), Klebsiella, Clostridium, and E. coli, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said it’s a good idea to stay out of the ocean, river or community pool if you have an open wound, due to how much bacteria may be in the water, especially if the water is warm.

Additionally, make sure to keep wounds -- even smaller injuries like blisters -- clean and protected as they heal, the CDC advises. Those with lowered immune systems from cancer treatment, diabetes or kidney problems should especially be on guard because the bacteria may be able to spread before the immune system can fend them off.

“If there is a theme here, it’s wounds that are less slicing wounds and less abrasive wounds and rather more puncture wounds,” Schaffner said of the types of wounds that are more likely to lead to necrotizing fasciitis. “They’re the ones that provide a track beneath the skin into the deeper layers.”

Schaffner explained that the reason the disease is so frightening is that the infection can start off with subtle symptoms before doctors realize how serious the infection is. Classically, the disease starts when the fascia, the membrane covering muscles, is infected. But the fascia is so thin and spread so far over the muscles that an infection can be hard to spot and treat.

“You can think of cellophane-like cover of the muscle,” Schaffner explained of the fascia. “Necrotizing fasciitis slides along that sheath in a horizontal fashion and may not be evident on the surface.”

The main symptom is intense pain that doesn’t seem to match the severity of the wound, Schaffner said.

For example, a simple bug bite or small cut could lead to a large infection under the surface but may not appear red or swollen during examination. If doctors are concerned about necrotizing fasciitis, they can order an x-ray or CT scan to aid the diagnosis, Schaffner said.

“Below the surface of skin you might see gas or air, from metabolism of bacteria or [you] might see altered anatomy indicating something is going on at deeper layers at muscle or fascia,” Schaffner explained.

Treatment can include antibiotics and surgery. In rare cases if the infection has spread to the muscle, amputation may be needed to stop the disease.