What is gangrene?

Gangrene is a serious medical condition in which lack of blood supply to body tissues causes the tissue to die. Although any body tissues can be affected, gangrene most commonly starts in the fingers, toes, hands and feet.

Gangrene can be fatal if left untreated.

There are several different types of gangrene including:

  • Dry gangrene: Tissue death results when blood flow to an area is disrupted or becomes blocked, often due to poor circulation.
  • Wet gangrene: Tissue death results from a bacterial infection and injury that cuts off the blood supply. Tissue swells, blisters, and pus (the “wet” factor) develops. Wet gangrene can quickly spread and therefore requires immediate medical attention.
  • Gas gangrene: Tissue death results from an infection caused by the bacteria Clostridium. The bacteria quickly multiply inside body tissues, forming toxins and releasing gas in the tissue. If left untreated, gas gangrene can quickly lead to death.
  • Fournier’s gangrene: This gangrene is caused by an infection to the penis, scrotum or perineal (genital and anal) area.
  • Internal gangrene: This gangrene is due to blocked blood flow specifically to internal organs, such as the intestines, gallbladder or appendix.

Who is at risk for gangrene?

Gangrene is more likely to develop in individuals who have:

  • Atherosclerosis or peripheral arterial disease: In these conditions, fat deposits in the arteries restrict blood flow.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes damages nerves and blood vessels. Diabetes causes wounds to heal more slowly. Slow healing wounds are at increased risk for infection. Feet are especially at risk for infection as a complication of diabetes.
  • Raynaud’s syndrome: In this condition, blood vessels in the fingers and toes react abnormally to cold temperatures. The blood vessels constrict (narrow) causing a decrease in blood flow to these digits.
  • Serious injuries to skin and tissues – such as from burns, frostbite, trauma (e.g. resulting in a crushed or squeezed body part): These injuries cause loss of blood to the area, tissue damage and increased risk of infection.
  • Weakened immune system: Even minor infections can lead to gangrene in individuals with weakened health status (for example, from such causes as diabetes, cancer, infectious diseases, alcoholism/drug abuse, older age).

What causes gangrene?

Gangrene is tissue death that results from lack of blood supply to the affected tissue area. Blood flow to all of the body’s tissues is vital to life. Blood delivers oxygen, nutrients and antibodies to fight infection. If the blood supply is cut off, cells can die, infections can develop, and tissue can die from gangrene.

Gangrene occurs as a result of an injury, infection in tissue or other conditions that affect blood circulation.

What are the signs and symptoms of gangrene?

The symptoms of gangrene vary depending on the cause. General symptoms include:

  • Cold, pale skin.
  • Loss of feeling in the affected area.
  • Pain may or may not be present in the affected area.
  • Red and swollen skin in the affected area.

If a bacterial infection causes gangrene, other signs and symptoms may also include:

  • Fever.
  • Chills.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat.
  • Dizziness.
  • Severe pain in the affected area.
  • Sores and blisters that bleed and release foul-smelling pus.
  • Crackling sound when pressing on the skin (indicates a buildup of gas in tissue).
  • Change in skin color as it dies -- from red to brown to purple to black.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/03/2019.

References

  • National Health Service. Gangrene. Accessed 8/30/2019.
  • National Organization for Rare Disorders. Fournier Gangrene. Accessed 8/30/2019.
  • Merck Manual. Gas Gangrene. Accessed 8/30/2019.
  • Tubbs RJ, Savitt DL, Suner S. Extremity Conditions. In: Knoop KJ, Stack LB, Storrow AB, Thurman R. eds. The Atlas of Emergency Medicine, 4e New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; Accessed 8/30/2019.

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