What Is Gas Gangrene?
Gangrene is the death of body tissue. Clostridial myonecrosis, a
type of gas gangrene, is a fast-spreading and potentially life-threatening form
of gangrene caused by a bacterial
infection from Clostridium bacteria. The
infection causes toxins to form in the tissues, cells, and blood vessels of the
body. These bacteria will release toxins that cause tissue death and release a
Most gangrene infections occur in situations where open wounds from
an injury or surgery are exposed to bacteria. Non-traumatic gas gangrene, a
more rare form of gas gangrene, can develop when blood flow to body tissues is
compromised and bacteria gets inside. There is a greater risk in people who
have a peripheral vascular disease, atherosclerosis, or
Gas gangrene can occur anywhere on the body, but it most commonly
affects the arms or legs. Common symptoms include increased heart rate, fever,
and air under the skin. Skin in the affected area also becomes pale and then
later changes to dark red or purple. These symptoms usually develop six to 48
hours after the initial infection and progress very quickly. Treatment may
include antibiotics and surgery to remove the dead tissue. Occasionally a
hyperbaric oxygen chamber may be used. Surgery consists of debridement (removal
of dead tissue) and sometimes amputation.
Gas gangrene is a rare condition. However, it can quickly become
a life-threatening infection when it goes untreated. You should call 911 or go
to the nearest emergency room right away if you are experiencing symptoms of
What Are the Symptoms of Gas Gangrene?
Symptoms of gas gangrene often include:
under the skin
in the area around a wound
in the area around a wound
skin that quickly turns gray, dark red, purple, or black
with foul-smelling discharge
skin and eyes (jaundice) is a late sign
This condition spreads so rapidly that you can see obvious changes
in the skin of the affected area in just a few minutes.
If you have symptoms of gas gangrene, call 911 or go to the
emergency room immediately. Delaying treatment can lead to shock, kidney
failure, and coma. The infection may even become life threatening within 48
hours of the onset of symptoms.
What Causes Gas Gangrene?
Gas gangrene is most commonly caused by the Clostridium
perfringens bacterium. In
some cases, it may be caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria. The infection occurs
suddenly and spreads quickly.
Gas gangrene generally develops at a recent surgical or injury
site. In rare cases, it may happen spontaneously, without an apparent cause.
Certain injuries have a higher risk of causing gas gangrene,
that are very deep
that are contaminated with stool or dirt, especially those that might occur on
You are also at an increased risk for developing this condition
if you have:
a contaminated needle to inject substances into your muscles
How Is Gas Gangrene Diagnosed?
Your doctor can diagnose gas gangrene by performing a physical
examination and ordering various tests. Diagnostic testing may include:
- skin culture to test
for the presence of Clostridium perfringens and
tests to check for an abnormally high white blood cell count, which can
indicate an infection
tests, such as an routine X-ray, to visualize tissues and check for the
presence of gas or special studies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or
to evaluate the spread of gas gangrene within the body
How Is Gas Gangrene Treated?
Treatment for gas gangrene must begin immediately. Once a
diagnosis is made, high doses of antibiotics will be administered
intravenously, or through a vein. For more serious cases, it may be necessary
to begin treatment before diagnostic tests are even performed. Dead or infected
tissue will need to be surgically removed right away. Your doctor may also try
to repair damaged blood vessels to boost blood flow to the affected area.
Damaged tissues can also be treated with a type of reconstructive
surgery called a skin graft. During a skin graft, your doctor will remove
healthy skin from an unaffected part of your body and attach it over the
damaged area. This can help restore any skin damage caused by gas gangrene.
In severe cases of gas gangrene, amputation of a limb may be
necessary to prevent the infection from spreading to the rest of your body.
Once your wound has healed, you may be fitted with a prosthetic limb. This is
an artificial limb that may be attached to the amputation site to replace the
missing body part.
Some doctors and hospitals use hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat
gas gangrene. This type of therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a
pressurized chamber for about 90 minutes. You may receive two to three
treatments per day. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy steadily increases the amount of
oxygen in your blood, helping infected wounds to heal faster.
What Is the Outlook for Someone with Gas Gangrene?
Gas gangrene is a very serious condition that often begins unexpectedly
and progresses rapidly. The infection can quickly become life threatening when
left untreated. However, your individual outlook will depend on your overall
health, the severity of the infection, and the location of the infection. Potential
The sooner gas gangrene is treated, the better the outcome. It’s
critical to seek medical treatment as soon as you notice symptoms.
How Can Gas Gangrene Be Prevented?
The best way to prevent gas gangrene is to practice proper
hygiene. If you have an injury, make sure to clean the skin thoroughly and to
cover the wound with a bandage. Contact your doctor at the first signs of
infection. Signs of infection include redness, swelling, pain, and discharge.
Your doctor will remove any foreign objects and dead tissue from the wound.
It’s also important to take any prescribed antibiotics according to your
doctor’s instructions. This will help lower your risk of developing an
Making certain lifestyle changes can also help reduce your risk for
gas gangrene. These include:
- avoiding tobacco products
- properly caring for any existing health
conditions, such as diabetes or arterial disease
- maintaining a healthy weight by exercising
regularly and eating a healthful diet that largely consists of lean protein,
vegetables, and whole grains
If you’re concerned about your risk for gas gangrene, talk to
your doctor about other ways to prevent the infection.