Flesh-Eating Bacteria: What You Need to Know

Everybody has probably heard of the most recent issue plaguing the Gulf Coast. It’s not shark attacks. It’s not a heatwave. It’s a teeny tiny bacteria (or several of them) that have been scaring off tourists and locals. Commonly called flesh-eating bacteria, necrotizing fasciitis is an infection that results in the death of parts of the body’s soft tissues. It is a severe disease of sudden onset that spreads rapidly. It can be caused by many kinds of bacteria that invade the skin and begin to break it down rapidly. These bacteria can be picked up almost anywhere, and some of the culprit bacteria are pretty well known. For example, there is an average of 700 to 1,200 cases each year of Necrotizing Fasciitis caused by Group A Strep, according to the CDC. Other types include Klebsiella, Clostridium, Escherichia coli (e. Coli) and Staphylococcus aureus (staph infection).

So, where do these bacteria live specifically?

The short answer is everywhere. Flesh-eating bacteria infections can occur when people with an open cut or wound enter a body of water, including a hot tub, swimming pool, lake, or ocean. You can contract it in surgical wounds after a procedure. Bug bites that get infected and are left untreated can even develop the condition. In severe cases, the infection can result in amputation or even death. The bacteria particularly flourish in water with temperatures that stay above 55 degrees, making coastlines a common source of cases – from Florida to California to Maryland. While most cases occur in the warmer Southern states, in 2017 and 2018, there were five cases as far North as Delaware Bay near New Jersey. There have been several cases along the Gulf of Mexico in 2019, including Santa Rosa Beach, Destin, and recently Panama City.

How do you know if you have flesh-eating bacteria?

Well, it’ll start out as a red, swollen that is hot to the touch. This initial infection is also called cellulitis, or inflammation of cellulite (skin tissue). Then, you’ll start to notice muscle pain, stiffness, and maybe blistering. Shortly after those symptoms, you’ll likely develop a fever and maybe some nausea and vomiting. The bacteria multiply very fast. The best way to keep track of it is to immediately outline the area with a sharpie and check it every ten minutes. If it’s outside the lines within an hour, go to the doctor immediately. When caught and treated early, flesh-eating bacteria can be cured. Do not wait to get treated because current reports state that necrotizing fasciitis kills 1 in 4 infected people. In some cases, death can occur within 12 to 24 hours.

So, since these bacteria are everywhere and can be picked up at any moment (AHHHH) how do we prevent it? First of all, stay clean. Be sure to shower with soap after getting into any warm water, including swimming pools. If you spend the day outside getting sweaty, shower thoroughly when you get home. Pay special attention to areas that aren’t easily cleaned. If you have a wound, cut, infection, or a compromised immune system, it may be best to avoid bodies of water altogether. Wash your hands OFTEN and thoroughly. Keep your house clean. Keep your pools clean. Keep yourself clean. If you have a wound, the CDC suggests cleaning all minor cuts with soap and water, covering open wounds with clean, dry bandages until they heal, and seeing a doctor for puncture wounds and other deep or serious wounds.

If you think that you or someone you know has been exposed to any body of water with a small cut or had an accident in the water, please find a medical care provider immediately. If you notice a red, painful, feverish area on your body, monitor it and get treatment ASAP if it’s getting bigger. Facilities like ProHealth are often able to provide treatment. If you are in Northwest Florida, our clinics in Gulf Breeze and Pensacola both accept walk-ins anytime and will be happy to get you the help you need. Don’t wait!