The tell-tale signs and symptoms of the scariest flesh-eating bacteria were first described over 2000 years ago, but only recently in medical history have scientists been able to characterize thee diseases they cause and identify the bacteria responsible.
Physicians now refer to the vast majority of flesh-eating bacterial infection cases as “necrotizing fasciitis.”‘Necrotizing’ refers to the death of tissue, while ‘fasciitis’ refers to inflammation of the fascia – a tissue layer that is under the skin.
In July of 2016, a Florida man learned of the horrors of flesh-eating bacteria. As reported in the Orlando Sentinal, Bob Morris and his wife had intended to go out for a quiet evening paddleboard on the Caloosahatchee River, a few miles east of Sanibel Island. A submerged oyster bed sent Bob flying off his board, and when he crawled back on he realized he had gashed his left knee open.
Bob and his wife rushed home and they knew the drill: “wash the cut, force it to bleed, flush with hydrogen peroxide, apply antiseptic. Repeat, repeat, repeat.” But by the next morning, his leg was only looking worse: swollen, red, and very painful. After rushing to the hospital, Bob received morphine and added to an amputation watch. After a week of testing, physicians were finally able to diagnose Bob: necrotizing fasciitis caused by the bacteria vibrio vulnificus.
Bob survived (with all his limbs), but the disease can be deadly. In Florida in 2015 alone, 45 people contracted V. vulnificus and 14 of those cases proved to be fatal.
V. vulnificus is just one of many bacteria that can lead to flesh-eating diseases. Many others exist and live in unique environments. Here are a few examples:
Usually, flesh-eating bacteria are classified by how many species of bacteria are to blame. Type 1 infections are ‘polymicrobial’ (many bacteria), and Type 2 are ‘monomicrobial’ (one bacteria).
Individuals will often contract Type 1 vs. Type 2 infections for different reasons. People who have weakened immune systems are most at risk. These patients already have other diseases that are stressing their body’s ability to fight off infection. Individuals with diabetes mellitus or chronic renal failure are particularly at risk of contraction. Type 2 infections usually result from some minor trauma that allows the bacteria entry into the body. In Bob’s case, this was likely caused by the cut on his knee and the presence of the flesh-eating V. vulnificus in the water.
One of the scarier parts of necrotizing fasciitis is that the symptoms are often hard to recognize or are even misleading. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, the symptoms will often present as if the patient has the flu. These symptoms will often include ‘high fever, sore throat, stomach ache, nausea, diarrhea, chills, and general body aches.’ One of the signs that separates the flu from flesh-eating diseases is the presence of an ‘erythema’ – a redding of the skin due to dilated blood vessels – that is painful to the touch. This erythema can also grow in size rapidly, often times up to 1 inch per hour.
As the bacteria spread under the skin, the initial symptoms will continue to worsen. A high fever often persists and pain levels increase well above what the initial injury would normally feel like. Additionally, the skin may start to turn a deep purple color with black splotches. At this point, left untreated, the patient’s chances of surviving are extremely low.
The first step in treating flesh-eating bacteria is getting a patient to the hospital. No at-home remedies exist to treat such a fast-moving infection. Upon arrival and diagnosis, surgery is typically the first procedure. This involves a surgeon removing all of the dead and dying tissue – regardless of where it is. Sometimes, this may lead to amputations of affected limbs.
Next, doctors will treat a patient with a powerful cocktail of antibiotics. Depending on which strain of flesh-eating bacteria is causing the infection, this cocktail will differ. There is currently no standard length of antibiotic treatment, thus doctors typically administer antibiotics until the patient shows no further signs of infection.