What is Gangrene?
Gangrene is a condition that occurs when body tissue dies. It is caused by a loss of blood supply due to an underlying illness, injury, and/or infection. Fingers, toes, and limbs are most often affected, but gangrene can also occur inside the body, damaging organs and muscles. There are different types of gangrene and all require immediate medical attention.
What Causes Gangrene?
Blood plays a very important role in your health. Not only does it transport oxygen and nutrients throughout your body to feed cells, it delivers disease-fighting antibodies that protect your body from infection. When blood cannot travel freely throughout the body, your cells cannot survive, infection can develop, and tissue can die from gangrene. Any condition that affects blood flow increases your risk of gangrene, including:
- Peripheral Arterial Disease
- Trauma or serious injury
- Weakened immune system
Early Stages of Gangrene
In earlier stages, the skin may be pale and either numb or painful. In wet gangrene, the affected area will be swollen with blisters oozing fluid; and the area may be red and warm with a foul odor. Gas gangrene causes severe pain, fever, and the skin will crackle like bubble wrap when pressed.
Symptoms of Gangrene
When gangrene affects your skin, signs and symptoms may include:
- Skin discoloration — ranging from pale to blue, purple, black, bronze or red, depending on the type of gangrene you have
- Swelling or the formation of blisters filled with fluid on the skin
- A clear line between healthy and damaged skin
- Sudden, severe pain followed by a feeling of numbness
- A foul-smelling discharge leaking from a sore
- Thin, shiny skin, or skin without hair
- Skin that feels cool or cold to the touch
If you have a type of gangrene that affects tissues beneath the surface of your skin, such as gas gangrene or internal gangrene, you may notice that:
- The affected tissue is swollen and very painful
- You’re running a low-grade fever and generally feel unwell
A condition called septic shock can occur if a bacterial infection that originated in the gangrenous tissue spreads throughout your body. Signs and symptoms of septic shock include:
- Low blood pressure
- Fever, possibly, though temperature may also run lower than the normal 96.8 F (36 C)
- Rapid heart rate
- Shortness of breath
Types of Gangrene
There are six types of Gangrene:
This is more common in people who have vascular disease, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. It usually affects your hands and feet. Something blocks blood flow to a certain area, causing tissue to dry up, change color, and drop off. Unlike with other types of gangrene, you typically don’t have an infection. But dry gangrene can lead to wet gangrene if it becomes infected.
Wound infections are common with this type of gangrene. Burns or trauma in which a body part is crushed or squeezed can quickly cut off blood supply to the area, killing tissue and raising the odds of infection. The tissue swells and blisters; it’s called “wet” because it causes pus. Infection from wet gangrene can spread swiftly around your body.
Types of wet gangrene include:
Gas gangrene: Gas gangrene is a rare and life-threatening infection caused by the release of toxins from bacteria called clostridia. This condition occurs when bacteria invade muscle, bone or other internal organs. The skin may turn pale and gray, making a crackling sound when pressed. Without treatment, gas gangrene can have fatal results within 48 hours.
Fournier’s gangrene: Fournier’s gangrene, a rare bacterial infection of the genitalia and adjacent skin, affects men more often than women. If the infection enters your bloodstream and causes sepsis, it can be life-threatening.
When to see a doctor
Gangrene is a serious condition and needs immediate treatment. Call your doctor right away if you have persistent, unexplained pain in any area of your body along with one or more of the following signs and symptoms:
- Persistent fever
- Skin changes — including discoloration, warmth, swelling, blisters or lesions — that won’t go away
- A foul-smelling discharge leaking from a sore
- Sudden pain at the site of a recent surgery or trauma
- Skin that’s pale, hard, cold and numb
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