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What is Necrotizing Fasciitis? Flesh-Eating Bacteria Hits Florida, Again

Every summer seems to have a lurking terror — this year it’s a flesh-eating bacteria that’s killed two so far

Warning sign of water quality

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Every summer, it seems, your mom texts you a link to a news story about some brain-eating amoeba or infectious bacteria found in a swimming hole or water park. This summer, the concern seems to be over the spread of flesh-eating bacteria, or necrotizing fasciitis, a rare bacterial condition that, if left untreated, can result in extreme health complications or even death.

Most recently, a 77-year-old Florida woman named Lynn Fleming died after contracting the bacteria through an open wound on her leg. A few weeks ago, Fleming fell into an embankment while walking along a beach near the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, developing a small, 3/4-inch wound on her shin, her son told CBS News. As a result of the fall into the water, she developed a bacterial infection that quickly spread throughout her body, leading to her death late last week.

Fleming’s death is the second reported case of necrotizing fasciitis in Florida this summer. Back in June, a 12-year-old girl contracted a similar bacterial infection, reportedly after scraping her toe while visiting Pompano Beach in Florida. After she complained about an extreme pain in her calf, her parents rushed her to the emergency room, where she was promptly diagnosed and treated for the infection.

Fortunately, necrotizing fasciitis is indeed uncommon, but it’s crucial to seek medical attention immediately to prevent it from spreading, doctors say. Here’s how to spot the symptoms and how to avoid the condition, so you can put your mom’s mind to rest and enjoy your summer.

What is necrotizing fasciitis, and where is it found?
Essentially, necrotizing fasciitis is a form of bacterial infection that rapidly kills soft tissue. It can enter the body via an open wound of some sort, such as a cut or a scrape; there have also been reports of people contracting the bacteria by eating raw or undercooked shellfish. People with compromised immune systems or preexisting health issues, such as liver disease, hepatitis, or diabetes, are more at risk of developing the infection.

Because the bacteria can only survive in warm water temperatures, infections are more common in the summer. It’s most often found in warm, brackish water, such as in the Gulf of Mexico or in the marshes of the American Southeast. But a recent report has suggested that at least one strain of the bacteria was found up the East Coast as far as Delaware, thanks to climate change causing rising water temperatures.

According to the CDC, there are only about 700 to 1,100 cases of necrotizing fasciitis in the United States per year. But if it’s not caught early, it can be fatal: about a third of cases of flesh-eating bacteria end in death.

What are the symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis?
Because the infection spreads relatively quickly — in many cases, within just a few hours — it’s important to spot the symptoms early on, including fever, chills, vomiting, and a reddish or purplish swelling and blisters around the area of the open wound.

The primary symptom is pain that is not commensurate with the extent of the wound, as was the case with the 12-year-old girl who developed a bacterial infection earlier this month: according to a Facebook post authored by her mother, she complained about pain in her calf less than 24 hours after developing the cut, and was unable to walk. (Note: the following images may be disturbing to some people.)

How can you avoid necrotizing fasciitis?
The easiest way to prevent such an infection is to thoroughly clean any open wound, even minor cuts and injuries, with soap and water, according to the CDC. You should also use a bandage to cover any open cut on the body, including blisters and scrapes. If you have an open wound, it’s best to avoid swimming in warmer bodies of water, such as pools, hot tubs, marshes, oceans, or lakes.

 

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