Every so often, scary-sounding headlines with the phrase “flesh-eating bacteria” wind up in your news or social feed.

When it comes to your health, you should probably worry more about the number of hot dogs you scarf down this summer before you get to fretting about acquiring a horrible condition at the beach. Here’s what you need to know:

Flesh-eating bacteria – despite its horror-movie connotation – is a rare bacterial infection. But it can be deadly if not treated promptly.

Since 2010, about 700 to 1,200 cases occur each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that’s likely an underestimate, the CDC noted. About one-third of those cases result in death.

No cases have been reported in North Carolina or South Carolina in the first half of 2019. In mid-July, a Virginia woman contracted the flesh-eating bacteria after swimming at Norfolk’s Ocean View Beach.

It thrives in warm water, which makes it more active in the summer. It can be found in saltwater and freshwater. Medically, it’s called necrotizing fasciitis.

The bacteria most commonly enter the body through a break in the skin, including:

  • Cuts and scrapes
  • Burns
  • Insect bites
  • Puncture wounds (including those from intravenous drug use)
  • Surgical wounds
Carnahan_Sandra_Head_web
Dr. Sandra Carnahan

“If you wear a waterproof bandage before entering the water, you should be OK,” said Dr. Sandra Carnahan, a family practitioner at Novant Health Oceanside Family Medicine in Leland, North Carolina.

Symptoms to look for

The infection often spreads quickly. Early symptoms can include:

  • Severe pain, including pain beyond the area of the skin that is red or swollen
  • A red or swollen area of skin that spreads quickly
  • Fever

“The pain you feel is way out of proportion,” Carnahan said. “Redness and swelling develop, but the pain when you touch it is very intense.”

Later symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis can include ulcers, blisters, or black spots on the skin, changes in the color of the skin, oozing from the infected area, dizziness, fatigue, diarrhea and nausea.

“It can get much worse very quickly,” Carnahan said.

Prompt treatment is key

Antibiotics and surgery are typically the first steps in treating necrotizing fasciitis. Since it can spread rapidly, patients often must have surgery immediately. Doctors also give intravenous antibiotics to try to stop the infection.

But sometimes antibiotics can’t reach all of the infected areas because the bacteria have killed too much tissue and reduced blood flow. When that happens, doctors surgically remove the dead tissue. Patients with necrotizing fasciitis often need multiple surgeries. 

Risk factors

Most people who get necrotizing fasciitis have other health problems that may lower their body’s ability to fight infections, Carnahan said.

Conditions that weaken the immune system include:

  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Kidney disease
  • Scarring (cirrhosis) of the liver

Carnahan said that necrotizing fasciitis can also be contracted by eating contaminated shellfish.

“You shouldn’t eat undercooked or raw seafood,” she said. “Cook them before eating them. And always wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw shellfish.”

Find an infectious disease specialist in seconds

Schedule now