A severe bacterial infection or lack of blood flow can cause body tissue to die. Know the warning signs and symptoms of this life-threatening condition.
Gangrene is death of body tissue due to a lack of blood flow or a serious bacterial infection. Gangrene commonly affects the arms and legs, including the toes and fingers. It can also occur in the muscles and in organs inside the body, such as the gallbladder.
A condition that can damage the blood vessels and affect blood flow, such as diabetes or hardened arteries (atherosclerosis), increases the risk of gangrene.
Treatments for gangrene may include antibiotics, oxygen therapy, and surgery to restore blood flow and remove dead tissue. The earlier gangrene is identified and treated, the better the chances for recovery.
When gangrene affects the skin, signs and symptoms may include:
If gangrene affects tissues beneath the surface of your skin, such as gas gangrene or internal gangrene, you may also have a low-grade fever and generally feel unwell.
If the germs that caused the gangrene spread through the body, a condition called septic shock can occur. Signs and symptoms of septic shock include:
Gangrene is a serious condition and needs emergency treatment. Call your health care provider immediately if you have persistent, unexplained pain in any area of your body along with one or more of the following signs and symptoms:
Causes of gangrene include:
Wet gangrene. Gangrene is referred to as wet if bacteria have infected the tissue. Swelling, blistering and a wet appearance are common features of wet gangrene.
Wet gangrene may develop after a severe burn, frostbite or injury. It often occurs in people with diabetes who unknowingly injure a toe or foot. Wet gangrene needs to be treated immediately because it spreads quickly and can be deadly.
Gas gangrene. Gas gangrene typically affects deep muscle tissue. The surface of your skin may look normal at first.
As the condition worsens, the skin may become pale and then turn other colors such as gray or purplish red. The skin may look bubbly. It may make a crackling sound when you press on it because of the gas within the tissue.
Gas gangrene is most commonly caused by bacteria called Clostridium perfringens. Bacteria gather in an injury or surgical wound that has no blood supply. The bacterial infection produces toxins that release gas and cause tissue death. Like wet gangrene, gas gangrene is a life-threatening condition.
Gangrene occurs when blood flow to a certain area of the body is interrupted. The lack of blood flow causes tissue to die. Gangrene often affects the fingers or toes.
Things that can increase the risk of gangrene include:
Gangrene can lead to serious complications if it's not immediately treated. Bacteria can spread quickly to other tissues and organs. You may need to have a body part removed (amputated) to save your life.
Removal of infected tissue can lead to scarring or the need for reconstructive surgery.
Here are a few ways to help reduce the risk of developing gangrene:
Tests used to help diagnose gangrene include:
Tissue that has been damaged by gangrene can't be saved. But treatment is available to help prevent gangrene from getting worse. The faster you get treatment, the better your chance for recovery.
Treatment for gangrene may include one or more of the following:
Medications to treat a bacterial infection (antibiotics) are given by IV or taken by mouth.
Pain medications may be given to relieve discomfort.
Depending on the type of gangrene and its severity, more than one surgery may be needed. Surgery for gangrene includes:
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is done inside a chamber pressurized with pure oxygen. You usually lie on a padded table that slides into a clear plastic tube. The pressure inside the chamber will slowly rise to about 2.5 times regular atmospheric pressure.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy helps the blood carry more oxygen. Oxygen-rich blood slows the growth of bacteria that live in tissue lacking oxygen. It also helps infected wounds heal more easily.
A hyperbaric oxygen therapy session for gangrene usually lasts about 90 minutes. Two to three treatments a day may be needed until the infection clears.
Call your health care provider right away if you have symptoms of gangrene. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may be told to go to the emergency room or to call 911 or your local emergency number for medical help.
If you have time before you leave home or on the way to the hospital, use the information below to prepare for your visit.
For gangrene, some basic questions to ask your health care provider include:
Don't hesitate to ask your care provider any additional questions.
Your health care provider is likely to ask several questions to help determine the diagnosis and treatment. You may be asked: