Flesh-eating Bacteria: Experts Weigh In

With several reports in the news of people infected with “flesh-eating bacteria” recently,  Gulf Coast area residents are asking if they should be concerned. Infectious disease specialists affiliated with Memorial Hermann want to make sure people have the facts. We took the most frequently asked questions about this disease straight to the experts.

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Q: What is the “flesh-eating bacteria” disease?

A: “Its medical name is necrotizing fasciitis. It’s a serious bacterial skin infection that kills the body’s soft tissue. Bacteria infect layers of membrane known as the fascia. The toxins caused by the bacteria then destroy the surrounding tissue. It is a rare disease that is potentially fatal, and can be caused by more than one type of bacteria.”  Dr. Todd Price, infectious disease specialist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center

Q: How do you get it?

A: “The types of bacteria that cause necrotizing fasciitis live on our skin every day. It’s when that bacterium gets under the skin that it causes problems. The most common way of getting necrotizing fasciitis is through a break in the skin, like a cut, bite, or other wounds.” – Dr. Linda Yancey, infectious disease specialist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital.

Q: How common is it?

A: “One of the most common bacterium that can lead to a necrotizing fasciitis is part of the Streptococcus A group.  That’s the same bacteria commonly responsible for sore throat and other skin infections.  Most of the time, it causes a mild illness.  Sometimes, it leads to something much more serious.”  – Dr. John Butler, medical director of Infection Prevention at Memorial Hermann Health System

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Q: What are the symptoms?

A: “Necrotizing fasciitis can look like a number of other illnesses or injuries. People will complain of pain or soreness. There may be rapid swelling, ulcers or blisters.  Many times people report feeling extreme symptoms very quickly, especially when compared to the type of injury. For example, they have a cut on their finger and their entire hand swells.  If you have these symptoms, don’t delay going to a physician or emergency center. The key to treating the disease successfully is getting medical attention as quickly as possible.”  – Dr. Luis Ostrosky, Infectious Disease Specialist affiliated with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and professor of internal medicine with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth

Q: You say you can get it anytime you have a cut.  Why do we often hear about flesh-eating disease in connection with water?

A: “The Vibrio species of bacteria that causes the severest form of necrotizing fasciitis flourishes in warm, brackish water. People may not think about smaller open wounds even as small as mosquito bites, when they get in the water, putting  themselves at higher risk for the disease.” – Dr. Todd Price

Q: I heard you can get it from eating infected seafood. Is that true?

A: “Raw seafood can carry certain types of bacteria that could lead to necrotizing fasciitis. If the seafood is cooked, the bacterium can’t survive. You should also avoid handling raw seafood if you have an open wound.” –  Dr. Luis Ostrosky

Q: Are there any other risk factors?

A: “People with a weak immune system already have trouble fighting off disease, and necrotizing fasciitis is no different.  Those who are immune-compromised should take extra care if they do decide to swim in saltwater.” – Dr. Yancey

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Q: What can you do to protect yourself?

A: “Good wound care is vitally important. Make sure to thoroughly clean any wound and keep it covered with a clean, dry bandage until it’s healed. The CDC recommends staying away from hot tubs, swimming pools, and other bodies of water if you have an open wound. As always, practice good hand washing.”  –   Dr. John Butler

If you find yourself in need of emergency care, Memorial Hermann  has Emergency Centers located around the Greater Houston area. To locate the nearest Memorial Hermann Emergency Center, visit http://www.memorialhermann.org/emergency/

Watch this patient story on flesh-eating bacteria:



  1. I didn’t know what this horrific disease was until I met with it head on, this was the most horrible medical condition I’d seen in 20 years, I cared for a person for 20 consecutive months after post open 32 surgeries. Diagnosed 0>30% chance of survival! He lived. No loss of extremities and by the grace of God and severe sanitization hourly even minute by minute at times. No secondary infections to all the surgical wounds no in and out of the hospotal; bedbound flat on his back 17 months until the wounds healed and I could max assist him out of bed: you can beat this disease: cleanliness and sterilization over and over again. Don’t give up hope ! You can heal

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Tashika Varma