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Rare, but Deadly. What You Need to Know About Flesh-Eating Bacterial Infections

By DAN Boater

 

This story was originally broadcast by NBC News on July 1, 2019.

What causes a flesh-eating bacteria infection? How common is it?

While these infections are rare -- between 700 and 1,200 cases in the US each year, according to the CDC -- a new study released last month suggests that cases of these deadly infections, called necrotizing fasciitis, may be on the rise in waters that were rarely affected in the past.

Necrotizing fasciitis is caused by rare bacteria such as Vibrio vulnificus and Group A Strep (most common) entering the body through a break in the skin, such as a scratch, cut, burn, or other open wound. It can also begin as an intestinal infection after the consumption of affected seafood. Both routes can lead to infections of the bloodstream. The infection develops rapidly and can become fatal if not treated promptly with the proper antibiotics. And although it's rarely contagious, people with a weakened immune system, the elderly, and the very young are at greatest risk.

What are the symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis?

Flesh-eating bacterial infections can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages because the symptoms often look similar to those of other diseases.

Early symptoms include red or swollen areas of the skin, severe pain (even beyond the red or swollen areas), and fever.

Later symptoms can include changes in skin color, ulcers, blisters, black spots, pus or oozing from the affected area, nausea and/or diarrhea, dizziness, or fatigue.

How do I avoid contracting a flesh-eating bacterial infection?

The best recommendation is to avoid spending time in lakes, rivers, oceans, swimming pools, and hot tubs if you already have an active skin infection, an open wound, or a surgical incision site that hasn't yet completely healed. Also, avoid consuming seafood from affected waters. Check with the CDC, WHO, or local health officials at your planned destination for details about any active/suspected seafood alerts for the area.

Serious complications are common with necrotizing fasciitis, so prompt treatment is absolutely critical. If you suffer a scratch, cut or puncture while out enjoying the water, thoroughly clean the injured area with soap and water -- or use alcohol if washing isn't possible -- and cover the wound with clean, dry bandages. Then keep a close eye out for the development of any symptoms. If you suspect you may have been exposed, seek professional medical attention immediately.

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