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?

gangreneBlood plays a vital role in your health. Not only does it transport oxygen and nutrients throughout your body to feed cells, but it also delivers disease-fighting antibodies that protect your body from infection. When blood cannot travel freely throughout the body, your cells cannot survive, the infection can develop, and tissue can die from gangrene. Any condition that affects blood flow increases your risk of gangrene, including:

Early Stages of Gangrene

In earlier stages, the skin may be pale, numb, or painful. In wet gangrene, the affected area will be swollen with blisters oozing fluid; the area may be red and warm with a foul odor. Gas gangrene causes severe pain and fever; 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

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 the temperature may also run lower than the normal 96.8 F (36 C)
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion

Types of Gangrene

There are six types of Gangrene:

Dry 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.

Wet Gangrene

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:

Internal gangrene: This is gangrene that affects your internal organs. It’s usually related to an infected organ such as your appendix or colon.

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.

Meleney’s gangrene (Progressive bacterial synergistic gangrene): This type usually manifests as painful lesions on your skin one to two weeks after surgery or minor trauma. It is also rare.

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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