Painting from fineartamerica.com, Jan Matson, artist
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water again, the media announces a new threat: flesh-eating bacteria. And, to make sure the shock value sunk in (no pun intended), the story was told on the evening news two nights in a row. In this story, an elderly woman injured her leg while walking on the beach (no details) and the next thing you know, she died from the flesh-eating bacteria entering the wound. The media made a point of saying “beach” a few times. What was the public left to think? That going to the beach results in flesh-eating bacteria attacking you and killing you? It was reminiscent of Jaws except the killer can’t be seen. Even more frightening.
The media presented the incident as if the beach was the culprit. Doctors who gave a 10 second sound bite on their take did nothing to reassure people. It left many people wondering if they should change their vacation plans. Stay home or go to the mountains instead?
Let’s Break Down the Science Behind Flesh-Eating Bacteria.
To set the record straight and ease the minds of the beach going public, flesh-eating bacterial infections (called necrotizing fasciitis in medicine), are rare. Only about 700-1200 infections are reported a year in this country. In the scheme of things, that’s very low. Secondly, flesh-eating bacteria are not a strange or special organism lurking on the coastlines. Most of the time it is a common organism, like streptococci. The same organism that causes strep throat. It can be a fungus or a combination of organisms. The organisms are found everywhere, not just the beach. They typically cause infections that are not usually lethal.
Why Do Some People Develop Necrotizing Fasciitis While Others Do Not?
Certain people are more likely to develop necrotizing fasciitis. The woman mentioned in the news was elderly, a risk factor for severe infections. The elderly immune system cannot fight organisms as well as a younger person’s immune system. We were not told anything more about the woman but if she were diabetic, that also placed her at risk. Diabetics are at increased risk for any infection since organisms love to feed on sugar, a nutrient that most diabetics have a generous supply of. Others who have problems with their immune system, such as people with cancer or those on certain medications, are also at risk of severe infections. They don’t generate enough immune response to handle the infection.
It Can Start as a Simple Pin Prick…
What is surprising to know is that the wound can be quite minor. Any wound can be an entry point for the organism. Surgical wounds, puncture wounds, insect bites and even blunt injuries can result in infections from flesh-eating bacteria.
Can It Be Prevented? What Are The Signs of a Serious Infection?
Washing a wound, even a minor one, with soap and water as soon as possible is an easy and effective way to prevent infections. If soap and water is not readily available then hand sanitizer will do. It is not as effective as soap and water but better than not cleaning the wound at all. Once you have a wound, it is best to not swim in the ocean or lakes or get in a hot tub. Here are the warning signs that you may have a serious infection:
- Rapidly advancing redness at the injury site.
- Black borders (indicates dead tissue) around the injury.
- Blisters forming around the injury.
- Extreme pain of the extremity that seems out of proportion to the wound. Indicates that the organism is spreading through the tissues underneath the skin.
- Onset of a fever.
If any of the above occur, see a health care provider immediately. The sooner treatment is started the better you will recover. Even then, the death rate is still rather high due to infection spreading throughout the body (called sepsis).
One Final Note, Go To The Beach!
Let’s put it all in perspective. Yes, flesh-eating bacteria cause serious infections that result in amputations and death. But the infections are rare and most people are not at high risk for getting them. Most can be prevented with simple washing of the wound. They are not just a beach problem although getting in water (not counting shower water) with a wound can cause an infection.
So, go to the beach and have a good time. Use common sense if you do get a wound. Follow up with your health care provider if you see any of the warning signs or are unsure. Flesh-eating bacteria should not be the follow up sequel to Jaws.
Tell me what you think of the media coverage of this incident. Did it make you feel that you should avoid the beach?
Art from Amazing Wallpapers
Dermatologic Manifestations of Necrotizing Fasciitis. Schwartz, Robert, Medscape. May 13, 2019. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1054438-overview
Necrotizing Fasciitis: All You Need to Know. Centers for Disease Control. Retrieved July 1, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/necrotizing-fasciitis.html