You've probably seen frightening recent news reports about flesh-eating bacteria, driven by a couple of high-profile cases (mainly the tragic one of young Georgia woman Aimee Copeland, who has lost a leg, a foot and both hands after a cut in her leg became infected with a strain of the bacteria).
These stories are horrifying, but the majority of us have nothing to fear, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Despite the headlines, necrotizing fasciitis (the proper name for a "flesh-eating" infection) is not on the rise. Each year there are between 650-800 cases of necrotizing fasciitis in the US caused by the most common flesh-eating bacteria, which is group A strep. Although it's likely that some cases go unreported, that's still a small number. And the CDC wants us to know that if we're healthy and practice good hygiene our chances of suffering from necrotizing fasciitis are very low. Most people who experience it have immune-compromising health conditions such as diabetes or cancer.
Nonetheless, it's important to know the symptoms of flesh-eating bacteria should you or a relative have the bad fortune to experience it. Such an infection can be caused by a number of different strains of bacteria, including group A strep, Klebsiella, Clostridium, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Aeromonas hydrophila. The bacteria usually enter the body through a cut (or burn, bug bite, or some other break in the skin) and release toxins that destroy the surrounding tissue and can spread throughout the body.
The symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis can be hard to recognize, because they mimic other, less serious, problems. According to the CDC:
People infected with necrotizing fasciitis may complain of pain or soreness, similar to that of a 'pulled muscle.' The skin may be warm with red or purplish areas of swelling that spread rapidly. There may be ulcers, blisters or black spots on the skin. Patients often describe their pain as severe and way out of proportion to how the painful area looks when examined by a doctor. Fever, chills, fatigue (tiredness) or vomiting may follow the initial wound or soreness. These confusing symptoms may delay a person from seeking medical attention quickly. If you think you may have these symptoms after a wound, see a doctor right away."
Treatment for a flesh-eating infection involves an IV of strong antibiotics and, often, surgery to remove the infected tissue. Although the topic may make you shudder, the point of this article is to reassure you that you're extremely unlikely to experience necrotizing fasciitis. Stay healthy, stay clean and avoid homemade zip lines over bodies of warm, fresh water (falling from a zip line into a river was how Copeland got the cut that became infected) and you should be fine.