The Facts about Flesh-Eating Bacteria

Ever since news of Aimee Copeland, the Ga. woman who contracted flesh-eating bacteria after a zip lining accident, hit the air waves, news story after news story has popped up about additional cases, creating a flurry of fear and some misinformation. The news hit close to home last week, when the family of a patient at Upson Regional Medical Center was interviewed by Fox 5 regarding a diagnosis of the condition.

Since the story aired last Tuesday, the community has raised questions and concern about their safety. So, we turned to the medical professionals at Upson and the Centers for Disease Control to get the facts.

Upson’s Infection Control Nurse, Danny McBride, says, “While recent media stories about “flesh-eating” bacteria may have you worried, the CDC shows no rise in annual cases, and offers assurance that this is not something easy to contract.”

Flesh-Eating Bacteria (Necrotizing fasciitis) is a serious bacterial infection that spreads rapidly and can destroy the body’s soft tissue. Commonly called a “flesh-eating infection” by the media, this very rare disease can be caused by more than one type of bacteria. These include group A Streptococcus (group A strep), Klebsiella, Clostridium, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Aeromonas hydrophila, among others. Group A strep is considered the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis.

Usually, infections from group A strep bacteria are generally mild or moderate and are easily treated. But sometimes toxins made by these bacteria destroy the tissue they infect, causing it to die. (“Necrotizing” means “causing the death of tissues.”)


The most common way of getting necrotizing fasciitis is when the bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin, like a cut, scrape, burn, insect bite, or puncture wound.

“The chances of contracting it at all are extremely low if you’re reasonably healthy,” said McBride. “Most cases occur randomly and are not linked to similar infections in others. It is not directly contagious person-to-person, unless the bacteria causing the infection are very resistant to antibiotics, in which case special precautions would be required of medical staff.”

Most people who get necrotizing fasciitis have other health problems that may lower their body’s ability to fight infection. Some of these conditions include diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, or other chronic health conditions that weaken the body’s immune system.

“If you’re healthy, have a strong immune system, and practice good hygiene and proper wound care, your chances of getting it are extremely low,” said McBride. “Good wound care is the best way to prevent a bacterial skin infection.”

The CDC recommends:

Keep draining or open wounds covered with clean, dry bandages until healed.
Don’t delay first aid of even minor, non-infected wounds like blisters, scrapes or any break in the skin.
If you have an open wound or active infection, avoid common-use sites like whirlpools, hot tubs and swimming pools until infections are healed.
Wash hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub if washing is not possible.

McBride says the symptoms often start within hours after an injury and may seem like another illness or injury.

Usually a minor trauma or other skin opening has occurred (the wound does not necessarily appear infected)
Some pain in the general area of the injury is present. Not necessarily at the site of the injury but in the same region or limb of the body
The pain is usually disproportionate to the injury and may start as something akin to a muscle pull, but becomes more and more painful
Flu like symptoms begin to occur, such as diarrhea, nausea, fever, confusion, dizziness, weakness, and general malaise
The biggest symptom is all of these symptoms combined. In general you will probably feel worse than you’ve ever felt and not understand why.
After a few days, symptoms of swelling, a purplish rash, and more discomfort. If you think you may have these symptoms after a wound, see a doctor right away.


In cases of necrotizing fasciitis, bacteria spread rapidly once they enter the body. They infect flat layers of a membrane known as the fascia, connective bands of tissue that surround muscles, nerves, fat, and blood vessels. The infection also damages the tissues next to the fascia.

The first line of defense against this disease is strong antibiotics given through a needle into a vein. But because the bacterial toxins can destroy soft tissue and reduce blood flow, antibiotics may not reach all of the infected and decaying areas. This is why the rapid surgical removal of dead tissue – in addition to antibiotics – may be critical to stopping the infection.

“The bottom line is that there is not a break-out of this condition any where, and the hospital remains a safe and clean place to receive care,” said McBride. “Wash your hands, and clean and protect even minor wounds, and this will significantly lower your low chances of contracting necrotizing fasciitis.”

Source: CDC