Flesh-eating bacteria? Rumors are unconfirmed

Dr. Christine Weyman

Lake Cumberland District Health Department

This summer has been rife with reports of vacationers contracting flesh-eating bacteria, usually in Florida.

Late this week, those rumors hit Lake Cumberland in the form of at least two Facebook posts regarding a child who apparently was diagnosed with the condition after swimming in the lake.

While the Commonwealth Journal has yet to make contact with the family to confirm that diagnosis, the newspaper did check with a few agencies to see if there were any official reports available.

Neither the Lake Cumberland District Health Department nor the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had received any reports regarding flesh-eating bacteria as of Friday afternoon. Even if they had, there would likely be no immediate cause for the public to be concerned.

That's because the condition, more formally known as necrotizing fasciitis, is rare but can be caused by multiple different types of bacteria which can be fairly common -- such as strep (group A streptococcus) or staph (staphylococcus).

"These bacteria may enter a break in the skin and develop into necrotizing fasciitis if the infection goes too far," Dr. Christine Weyman, LCDHD Medical Director, explained. "Swimming in the lake is not necessarily the cause, just where it may have first been seen."

According to Lee Roberts, Public Affairs Specialist for the Corps of Engineers' Nashville District, between 700 and 1,200 cases have occurred annually in the United States since 2010.

"While anyone can get necrotizing fasciitis, it is rare," Roberts added. "Most people who get this illness have other health problems that may lower their body's ability to fight infections."

With than in mind, it never hurts to be as prepared as possible in regard to recognizing necrotizing fasciitis and trying to prevent it.

According to information provided by Dr. Weyman, patients often begin to experience symptoms within as little as a few hours after the point of infection. Unfortunately, those symptoms may seem like another illness, such as the flu, and include a sore throat, nausea, stomach and body aches, a high fever, and chills. Patients may also experience symptoms similar to that of a pulled muscle, and notice redness or tenderness around the affected area.

The symptoms continue to progress rapidly. The infected area, which can spread at a rate of roughly one inch per hour, tends to appear red (but may also turn purple or black), swollen, shiny, and hot to the touch. Skin necrosis occurs when blisters appear in the infected area. Necrotizing fasciitis is painful, but another late symptom is a sudden improvement in pain, which often indicates the nerves are dying. At this point, patients may become delirious, dizzy, and weak. Without treatment, the patient's vital organs will begin to shut down because of toxic shock.

Because the condition can be deadly, anyone with a wound - whether a cut or other injury or from surgery - who exhibits early symptoms should consult a doctor as soon as possible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the two major components of treatment are antibiotics and surgical intervention.

There are several precautions people can take without skipping their lake time altogether.

The best way to prevent necrotizing fasciitis or other skin infections is caring for any wound you may have properly. Effective wound care includes keeping open wounds covered with clean and dry bandages until they have healed; treating all wounds as soon as possible, including minor cuts and scrapes; and avoiding swimming in pools, hot tubs, and lakes, with an open wound.

If you can't avoid the water until the break in skin heals, use waterproof bandages. Those at high risk for infection due to a weakened immune system should wear clothing and shoes that will protect them from cuts and scrapes while swimming.

Lastly, washing hands with soap and water is always recommended to stop the spread of bacteria and to take care of an injury. If washing is not possible, health professionals will recommend using alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

Michelle Allen, Executive Director of the Somerset-Pulaski County Convention and Visitors Bureau, was actually on Lake Cumberland among locals and tourists when contacted to see if her office had fielded any concerned calls.

"There are many boaters preparing for the annual Raft Up this weekend," she said. "We've not heard a thing."

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