The term “flesh-eating bacteria” can be as terrifying as it sounds. Medically termed necrotizing fasciitis, this infection can start to “eat” away at your cells. In severe cases, it can become deadly.
Infectious bacteria enter the body through open wounds — even minor ones — and spread quickly. Without prompt treatment, the infection can cost you a few limbs or even your life.
No vaccine, antibiotic, or medication can help you guard against flesh-eating bacteria. But knowing the early symptoms — and how to prevent infection — can.
Here’s everything you need to know about flesh-eating bacteria and how to stay safe.
Myths and facts about flesh-eating bacteria
Don’t believe everything you read about these bacteria or the infection they can cause. Know the facts about flesh-eating bacteria and disease so you can better understand how to avoid it.
- Freshwater sources are the most common places people come into contact with flesh-eating bacteria. Oceans have too much salt for bacteria to withstand.
- Not all flesh-eating bacterial infections cause tissue decay. This usually only happens when infections are severe.
- The bacteria that cause these infections aren’t rare — actual infections, however, are.
- Diseases such as necrotizing fasciitis don’t spread from person to person.
- Wounds as minor as a scrape or blister can put you at risk.
It’s possible to tell if you’ve been exposed to these bacteria before the infection becomes severe or life-threatening. Here’s what to look out for if you’ve spent time near a water source commonly associated with flesh-eating bacteria.
Signs you might have flesh-eating bacteria
You can’t get treated for flesh-eating bacteria if you don’t know what an infection looks like. Take note of the following symptoms, which range from mild to severe depending on the stage of the infection:
- A swollen or red area of skin that spreads rapidly
- Severe pain beyond the swollen or red area of skin
- Nausea or diarrhea
If infected, your skin might also change visibly in the later stages of the infection, including:
- Ulcers, black spots, or blisters
- Color changes
- Oozing or pus from the infected skin area.
If you develop this infection before you’ve made any efforts to prevent it, see a doctor immediately. It can be treated with antibiotics once you have it, but the sooner you’re given that medication, the better. Take it seriously even if you have doubts.
Preventing flesh-eating bacteria could save your life — here’s how to do it
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers potentially life-saving tips to keep you safe while spending time outdoors.
- Treat even minor wounds like blisters, insect bites, and scrapes promptly and properly.
- Cover wounds with clean, dry bandages.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer.
- If you have an open wound, avoid swimming in hot tubs, pools, rivers, and lakes.
Necrotizing fasciitis is rare. Chances are, you don’t have anything to worry about. But it’s always better to be safe than consumed by microscopic, flesh-eating organisms.
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