What Are Flesh-Eating Bacteria?

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Flesh-eating bacteria, also known as necrotizing fasciitis, are a rare but serious infection that can destroy skin, muscle, and other soft tissues. These bacteria typically enter the body through a cut or wound, and rapidly multiply, releasing toxins that damage nearby tissues. Symptoms include severe pain, redness, swelling, and fever. If left untreated, the infection can spread quickly and lead to organ failure, limb amputation, or even death. Prompt diagnosis and aggressive treatment, which usually involves antibiotics and surgical removal of infected tissue, are crucial for a successful outcome. Prevention includes proper wound care and hygiene practices.

Have you ever injured your knee while playing on the playground? Maybe you were engaged in an energetic game of tag. It’s possible that you slipped on some wet pavement and fell!

In such cases, a quick visit to the school nurse’s office would usually suffice. They would clean the wound and apply a bandage. Everything would be back to normal! After all, scrapes and bruises are quite common among children. What’s the worst that could happen?

In 2013, a scraped knee turned into a life-threatening illness for a boy in Idaho. It could have resulted in the amputation of his leg or even death. Fortunately, he recovered with the help of surgery and medication.

This young boy was affected by a rare disease. Recently, it has been receiving more attention in the media. The scientific term for this condition is necrotizing fasciitis.

The commonly-known name for this illness is “flesh-eating bacteria.” However, it is somewhat misleading. The bacteria do not actually “eat” flesh. Instead, they release toxins that destroy tissue. This leads to the rapid and widespread death of tissue, giving the impression that the flesh is being consumed by the bacteria.

Once inside the body, the bacteria can cause damage to the skin, fat, and other tissues. This happens rapidly, sometimes spreading at a rate of one inch per hour. It can result in sepsis, organ failure, and even death. As many as one-third of those infected do not survive.

We are fortunate that there are only around 1,000 reported cases of flesh-eating bacteria each year. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believe that many cases go unreported.

There are several different types of bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis. One of the most common is group A Streptococcus, which can often be found in our bodies. Occasionally, it leads to strep throat and scarlet fever.

Experts have discovered that certain strains of these bacteria become infected by viruses. These strains are known as “supercharged” and can cause necrotizing fasciitis.

How do people become infected by flesh-eating bacteria? It usually enters the body through punctured skin, such as cuts or insect bites. The initial symptom of an infection is often severe pain, which is caused by the deep tissue damage occurring beneath the skin.

Treatment typically involves two approaches. Doctors use antibiotics to combat the infection, and they also perform surgery to expose the affected areas to oxygen. This can help eliminate the bacteria. Surgery also allows doctors to remove dead and damaged tissue.

Will every scrape or cut lead to a serious health condition? Certainly not! However, it is important to clean and treat wounds properly. While flesh-eating bacteria is a rare condition, any cut is susceptible to other infections.

Try It Out

Are you ready to learn more about bacteria? Make sure to explore the following activities with a friend or family member:

Fortunately, not everyone who contracts flesh-eating bacteria succumbs to it. Take a moment to listen to Aimee Copeland’s story. Imagine being diagnosed with flesh-eating bacteria. Discuss your thoughts and feelings with a friend or family member.

Is there any potential use for flesh-eating bacteria? It’s possible! Explore the article “Making Superglue with Aid of Flesh-Eating Bacteria” to discover how scientists have harnessed a protein synthesized from these bacteria to create a molecular disease fighter.

Diseases and health threats evolve over time. Engage in a conversation with an older friend or family member about the diseases and illnesses that were prevalent during their youth. Are these still significant threats today, or have they been mostly eradicated? Speculate on the diseases that may pose a threat when you reach their age and explain your reasoning.

Sources of wonder:

1. WebMD – “Necrotizing Fasciitis (Flesh-Eating Bacteria) – Topic Overview” (accessed on July 18, 2020)

2. National Geographic – “Flesh-Eating Bacteria: What You Need to Know” (accessed on July 18, 2020)


1. What are flesh-eating bacteria?

Flesh-eating bacteria, also known as necrotizing fasciitis, are a rare but serious infection caused by certain types of bacteria. These bacteria can destroy skin, muscle, and other soft tissues by releasing toxins and enzymes that break down the body’s cells. They are called “flesh-eating” because of the speed at which they can cause tissue damage.

2. How do people get infected with flesh-eating bacteria?

People can become infected with flesh-eating bacteria through a break in the skin, such as a cut, burn, or surgical wound. The bacteria can enter the body and start to multiply, leading to an infection. Certain factors, such as a weakened immune system or an underlying health condition, can increase the risk of developing a flesh-eating bacterial infection.

3. What are the symptoms of a flesh-eating bacterial infection?

The symptoms of a flesh-eating bacterial infection may include severe pain, redness, swelling, and a rapidly spreading wound. Some people may also experience fever, chills, fatigue, and vomiting. If you notice any of these symptoms after a skin injury, it is important to seek medical attention immediately, as early diagnosis and treatment can be crucial in preventing further tissue damage.

4. How are flesh-eating bacterial infections diagnosed?

Flesh-eating bacterial infections are typically diagnosed through a combination of clinical examination, laboratory tests, and imaging studies. The doctor may evaluate the affected area, take a sample of the tissue or fluid for laboratory analysis, and order imaging tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, to assess the extent of the infection. Prompt diagnosis is essential for initiating appropriate treatment.

5. What is the treatment for flesh-eating bacterial infections?

The treatment for flesh-eating bacterial infections usually involves a combination of surgical intervention and antibiotics. Surgery is often necessary to remove the infected tissue and prevent the further spread of the infection. Intravenous antibiotics are also administered to kill the bacteria. In severe cases, additional treatments, such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, may be recommended to enhance wound healing. Close monitoring and follow-up care are essential for successful recovery.

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