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When doctors get it wrong (Part 2): Flesh-eating bacteria

It sounds like a nightmare: After vacationing in Florida, a 50-year-old Indiana woman develops a small pimple-like bump. It continues to grow and becomes more and more painful. Left untreated, it eventually develops into a full-blown skin infection, claiming the woman’s life. The cause? Necrotizing fasciitis – a flesh-eating bacterial infection that often gets overlooked.

While rare, the infection is deadly, with a mortality rate upwards of 30 percent. It’s also incredibly aggressive. In many cases, what starts as a minor wound leaves the patient at death’s door in a matter of hours. As a result, every second counts.

How people contract it

The infection is caused by several types of bacteria that exist all around us. It enters through a break in the skin – for example, a minor cut, scrape, bug bite or burn. Often, exposure occurs from contaminated water, such as a stream, swimming pool or hot-tub (the likely culprit in the Indiana woman’s case). People with diabetes, HIV, cancer, steroid use or other conditions that compromise the immune system are more at risk.

How it progresses

Within days or even hours, the wound becomes swollen and disproportionately painful. The skin may break out in ulcers or blisters that quickly spread. It may turn purplish or black as the infection destroys it.

The condition can also cause flu-like symptoms – chills, aches, fever and vomiting. Earlier this year, one victim was misdiagnosed with the flu, ending up in critical condition due to the delay in catching the infection.

How it’s treated

Treatment involves prompt administration of intravenous antibiotics and emergency surgery to remove the infected tissues and prevent the infection from spreading. Oxygen treatment in a hyperbaric chamber can also help the body fight off the infection.

Survivors often face a long road to recovery. Many undergo skin grafts and reconstructive surgeries. Many lose limbs, fingers and toes to the illness. It takes a devastating toll.

Victim of misdiagnosis?

Necrotizing fasciitis is just one of many rare yet deadly medical conditions that often get misdiagnosed. Victims of any type of misdiagnosis should seek prompt legal help. Compensation may be available.

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