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Necrotizing Skin Infections

(Necrotizing Cellulitis; Necrotizing Fasciitis)


Wingfield E. Rehmus

, MD, MPH, University of British Columbia

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2021 | Modified Sep 2022
Topic Resources

Necrotizing skin infections, including necrotizing cellulitis and necrotizing fasciitis, are severe forms of cellulitis Cellulitis Cellulitis is a spreading bacterial infection of the skin and the tissues immediately beneath the skin. This infection is most often caused by streptococci or staphylococci. Redness, pain, and... read more Cellulitis characterized by death of infected skin and tissues (necrosis).

  • The infected skin is red, warm to the touch, and sometimes swollen, and gas bubbles may form under the skin.

  • The person usually has intense pain, feels very ill, and has a high fever.

  • The diagnosis is based on a doctor's evaluation, x-rays, and laboratory tests.

  • Treatment involves removing dead skin, which sometimes requires extensive surgery, and giving intravenous antibiotics.

Most skin infections do not result in the death of skin and nearby tissues. Sometimes, however, bacterial infection can cause small blood vessels in the infected area to clot. This clotting causes the tissue fed by these vessels to die from lack of blood. Dead tissue is termed necrotic. Because the body's immune defenses that travel through the bloodstream (such as white blood cells White blood cells The immune system is designed to defend the body against foreign or dangerous invaders. Such invaders include Microorganisms (commonly called germs, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi) Parasites... read more and antibodies Antibodies One of the body's lines of defense ( immune system) involves white blood cells (leukocytes) that travel through the bloodstream and into tissues, searching for and attacking microorganisms and... read more Antibodies ) can no longer reach this area, the infection spreads rapidly and may be difficult to control. Death can occur, even with appropriate treatment.

Some necrotizing skin infections spread deep in the skin along the surface of the connective tissue that covers muscle (fascia) and are termed necrotizing fasciitis. Other necrotizing skin infections spread in the outer layers of skin and are termed necrotizing cellulitis. Several different bacteria, such as Streptococcus and Clostridia, may cause necrotizing skin infections, but in many people the infections are caused by a combination of bacteria. The necrotizing skin infection caused by streptococci in particular has been termed “flesh-eating disease” by the lay press, but it differs little from the others.

Some necrotizing skin infections begin at puncture wounds or lacerations, particularly wounds contaminated with dirt and debris. Other infections begin in surgical incisions or even healthy skin. Sometimes people with diverticulitis, intestinal perforation, or tumors of the intestine develop necrotizing infections of the abdominal wall, genital area, or thighs. These infections occur when certain bacteria escape from the intestine and spread to the skin. The bacteria may initially create an abscess (a pocket of pus) in the abdominal cavity and spread directly outward to the skin, or they may spread through the bloodstream to the skin and other organs. People with diabetes are at particular risk of necrotizing skin infections.

Symptoms of Necrotizing Skin Infections

Symptoms of necrotizing skin infections often begin just as for a common skin infection, cellulitis Cellulitis Cellulitis is a spreading bacterial infection of the skin and the tissues immediately beneath the skin. This infection is most often caused by streptococci or staphylococci. Redness, pain, and... read more Cellulitis . The skin may look pale at first but quickly becomes red or bronze and warm to the touch and sometimes swollen. Later, the skin turns violet, often with the development of large fluid-filled blisters (bullae). The fluid from these blisters is brown, watery, and sometimes foul smelling. Areas of dead skin turn black (gangrene Gas Gangrene Gas gangrene is a life-threatening infection of muscle tissue caused mainly by the anaerobic bacteria Clostridium perfringens and several other species of clostridia. Gas gangrene can... read more ). Some types of infection, including those caused by Clostridia and mixed bacteria, produce gas. The gas creates bubbles under the skin and sometimes in the blisters themselves, causing the skin to feel crackly when pressed. Initially the infected area is extremely painful, but as the skin dies, the nerves stop working and the area loses sensation. The muscles may be affected as the infection worsens.

Diagnosis of Necrotizing Skin Infections

  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Laboratory tests

A doctor makes a diagnosis of necrotizing skin infection based on its appearance, particularly the presence of gas bubbles under the skin. X-rays may show gas under the skin as well.

A blood test usually shows that the number of white blood cells has increased (leukocytosis). The specific bacteria causing the infection are identified by laboratory analysis of blood or tissue samples (culture). However, doctors begin treatment before they have the laboratory test results.

Prognosis of Necrotizing Skin Infections

The overall death rate is about 30%. Older people, those who have other medical disorders, and those in whom the disease has reached an advanced stage have a poorer outcome. A delay in diagnosis and treatment and insufficient surgical removal of dead tissue worsen the prognosis.

Treatment of Necrotizing Skin Infections

  • Surgical removal of dead tissue

  • Antibiotics

  • Amputation if necessary

The treatment of necrotizing fasciitis is surgical removal of the dead tissue plus antibiotics given by vein (intravenously). Large amounts of skin, tissue, and muscle must often be removed, and in some cases, an affected arm or leg may have to be removed (amputated).

People may need large volumes of intravenous fluids before and after surgery. Some doctors recommend treatment in a high-pressure (hyperbaric) oxygen chamber, but it is not clear how much this helps. People who also develop toxic shock syndrome Treatment Toxic shock syndrome is a group of rapidly progressive and severe symptoms that include fever, rash, dangerously low blood pressure, and failure of several organs. It is caused by toxins produced... read more may be given intravenous immune globulin.

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