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Gas gangrene

Contents of this page:


Gas gangrene
Gas gangrene
Gas gangrene
Gas gangrene

Alternative Names    Return to top

Tissue infection - Clostridial; Gangrene - gas; Myonecrosis; Clostridial infection of tissues

Definition    Return to top

Gas gangrene is a potentially deadly form of tissue death (gangrene).

See also: Necrotizing subcutaneous infection

Causes    Return to top

Gas gangrene is rare in the United States. The condition is most often caused by a bacteria called Clostridium perfringens. However, it also can be caused by Group A streptococcus. Staphylococcus aureus and Vibrio vulnificus can cause similar infections.

Under low-oxygen (anaerobic) conditions, Clostridium produces toxins that cause tissue death and related symptoms.

Gas gangrene generally occurs at the site of trauma or a recent surgical wound. The onset of gas gangrene is sudden and dramatic. About a third of cases occur on their own. Patients who develop this disease in this manner often have underlying blood vessel disease (atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries), diabetes, or colon cancer.

Clostridium bacteria produce many different toxins, four of which (alpha, beta, epsilon, iota) can cause potentially deadly syndromes. The toxins cause damage to tissues, blood cells, and blood vessels.

Symptoms    Return to top

The site of infection becomes inflamed with a pale to brownish-red and very painful tissue swelling. If you press on the swollen tissue with your fingers, you may feel gas as a crackly sensation. The edges of the infected area expand so quickly that changes are visible over a few minutes. The involved tissue is completely destroyed.

Symptoms include:

Note: Symptoms usually begin suddenly and quickly worsen.

If the condition is not treated, the person can develop a shock-like syndrome with decreased blood pressure (hypotension), kidney failure, coma, and finally death.

Exams and Tests    Return to top

The person may be in shock. A health care professional might feel air in the tissues (crepitus).

Treatment    Return to top

The person will need to have surgery quickly to remove dead, damaged, and infected tissue (debridement). Surgical removal (amputation) of an arm or leg may be needed to control the spread of infection.

Patients should get antibiotics, preferably penicillin-type. Initially, patients receive antibiotics through a vein (intravenously). Some people may need analgesics to control pain. Doctors have tried hyperbaric oxygen for this condition, with varying degrees of success.

Outlook (Prognosis)    Return to top

Gas gangrene is progressive and often fatal.

Possible Complications    Return to top

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

This is an emergency condition requiring immediate medical attention.

Call your heath care provider if you have signs of infection around a skin wound. Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911), if you have symptoms of gas gangrene.

Prevention    Return to top

Clean any skin injury thoroughly. Watch for signs of infection (such as redness, pain, drainage, or swelling around a wound), and consult your health care provider promptly if these occur.

Update Date: 11/1/2007

Updated by: Kenneth M. Wener, MD, Department of Infectious Diseases, Lahey Clinic, Burlington, MA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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