Gas gangrene is a potentially deadly form of tissue death (gangrene).
Tissue infection - Clostridial; Gangrene - gas; Myonecrosis; Clostridial infection of tissues
Gas gangrene is most often caused by a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens. It also can be caused by group A streptococcus, Staphylococcus aureus, and Vibrio vulnificus.
Clostridium is found nearly everywhere. As the bacteria grow inside the body, it makes gas and harmful substances (toxins) that can damage body tissues, cells, and blood vessels.
Gas gangrene develops suddenly. It usually occurs at the site of trauma or a recent surgical wound. In some cases, it occurs without an irritating event. Persons most at risk of gas gangrene usually have blood vessel disease (atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries), diabetes, or colon cancer.
Gas gangrene causes very painful swelling. The skin turns pale to brownish-red. When the swollen area is pressed, gas can be felt as a crackly sensation (crepitus). The edges of the infected area grow so quickly that changes can be seen over a few minutes. The area may be completely destroyed.
- Air under the skin (subcutaneous emphysema)
- Blisters filled with brown-red fluid
- Drainage from the tissues, foul-smelling brown-red or bloody fluid (serosanguineous discharge)
- Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
- Moderate to high fever
- Moderate to severe pain around a skin injury
- Pale skin color, later becoming dusky and changing to dark red or purple
- Swelling that worsens around a skin injury
- Vesicle formation, combining into large blisters
- Yellow color to the skin (jaundice)
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a physical exam. This may reveal signs of shock.
Tests that may be done include:
- Tissue and fluid cultures to test for Clostridium bacteria
- Blood culture to determine the bacteria causing the infection
- Gram stain of fluid from the infected area
- X-ray, CT scan, or MRI of the area may show gas in the tissues.
Surgery is needed quickly to remove dead, damaged, and infected tissue
Surgical removal (amputation) of an arm or leg may be needed to control the spread of infection. Amputation sometimes must be done before all test results are available.
Antibiotics are also given. These medicines are given through a vein (intravenously). Pain medicines may also be prescribed.
In some cases, hyperbaric oxygen treatment will be tried.
Gas gangrene usually begins suddenly and quickly gets worse. It is often deadly.
- Disfiguring or disabling permanent tissue damage
- Jaundice with liver damage
- Kidney failure
- Spread of infection through the body (sepsis)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
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.
Clean any skin injury thoroughly. Watch for signs of infection (such as redness, pain, drainage, or swelling around a wound). See your health care provider promptly if these occur.
Gerding DN, Johnson S. Clostridial infections. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldmans's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 304.
Onderdonk AB, Garrett WS. Gas gangrene and other Clostridium-associated diseases. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 246.
Last reviewed 11/20/2013 by Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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