Gas gangrene is a rare bacterial infection that destroys your blood cells and soft tissues. C. perfringens is the most common cause. You can get it after a deep, traumatic injury or abdominal surgery. Gas gangrene is a medical emergency that can quickly be fatal. Seek medical attention immediately if you have symptoms of gas gangrene.
Gas gangrene, also called clostridial myonecrosis, is a bacterial infection that destroys your tissues. It’s usually caused by Clostridium bacteria (most commonly, C. perfringens).
Clostridium bacteria release toxins that destroy blood cells, blood vessels and muscle tissue. This causes severe blisters, swelling and skin discoloration. The bacteria create gas that makes wounds smell bad when they open. The toxins also cause widespread inflammation.
Gas gangrene can be life-threatening within hours of symptoms starting.
Gas gangrene is rare. Less than 1 in 100,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with it every year. Gas gangrene was common on the battlefields during the American Civil War and WWI, before modern methods for cleaning wounds and killing germs.
Gas gangrene and necrotizing fasciitis have similar symptoms and causes. They both destroy tissue and can be fatal. The main difference between them is in the types of tissue they typically affect. Necrotizing fasciitis destroys the fat under your skin and the connective tissues that support your body (fascia). Gas gangrene infects and destroys your blood cells, blood vessels and muscle tissue.
The same bacteria can cause both of them, but gas gangrene is usually caused by Clostridium and necrotizing fasciitis is usually caused by group A Streptococcus or Staphylococcus Aureus.
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Gas gangrene causes discoloration, large blisters and swelling on your skin where you have a wound. It can also cause other symptoms, including:
Gas gangrene destroys your skin and muscle. It leaves large areas of dead tissue and inflammation. The bacteria reproduce so fast that you might see changes in your skin over just minutes or hours. In the area of an injury, you might experience:
Fluids draining from gas gangrene blisters is often described as foul, putrid or sickly sweet.
The bacterium Clostridium perfringens causes most cases of gas gangrene. Other species (types) of Clostridium and group A Streptococcus bacteria can also cause it.
These bacteria live in dirt and in the intestines (GI tract) of people and animals. They release toxins that destroy your cells, including your blood cells, blood vessels and muscle tissue.
They reproduce best in areas with little oxygen. Destroying your blood cells means that less oxygen gets to your tissues. That makes it easier for them to keep reproducing and creating toxins, spreading the damage very quickly. Breaking down nutrients without oxygen (fermentation) is also what causes the pockets of gas.
The most common way to get gas gangrene is through a severe injury that goes deep into your body. These wounds are tougher to clean completely. They also aren’t exposed to oxygen in the air, which kills C. perfringens bacteria. An injury is at further risk for gas gangrene if:
Traumatic injuries like this can happen as a result of car or motorcycle accidents (for instance, “road rash”). Gunshot and stab wounds are other examples of traumatic injuries.
Less common causes of gas gangrene include:
Severe injuries and abdominal surgeries put you at higher risk for traumatic gas gangrene. You’re at higher risk for spontaneous gas gangrene — not caused by an injury — if you have certain underlying conditions, including:
Keep in mind that, even if you have one of these risk factors, it’s still extremely unlikely that you’ll ever be affected by gas gangrene.
Gas gangrene can quickly lead to life-threatening complications, including:
A provider diagnoses gas gangrene based on your symptoms and the look of any wounds you have. They’ll confirm a diagnosis by looking at tissue or fluids from your wounds under a microscope. They might order imaging tests, such as X-rays, CT scans or MRIs to check for tissue damage.
A provider may order or perform the following tests to confirm a gas gangrene diagnosis or to decide on treatment:
Gas gangrene must be treated immediately. Your provider will give you high doses of antibiotics and surgically remove as much of the infected tissue as possible. You may need other treatments depending on the severity of your infection. You’ll need to stay in the hospital to be monitored throughout your treatment.
Your provider may treat you with the following medications or procedures:
Healthcare providers take precautions to prevent any infections during surgery and other procedures. This includes the bacterial infections that cause gas gangrene. Ways for you to reduce your risk of gas gangrene and other bacterial infections include:
Gas gangrene is a life-threatening emergency. You can expect to stay in the hospital while providers treat you. There, providers will:
The outlook for gas gangrene depends on what caused it and where on your body it’s doing damage. People who have gas gangrene in their extremities (arms, legs, hands or feet) have a better prognosis (outlook) than those who have an infection in their abdomen or chest, or those with spontaneous gas gangrene.
You can survive gas gangrene if you get treatment quickly. Between 20% and 30% of gas gangrene cases are fatal with treatment. Without treatment, gas gangrene is always fatal.
See a healthcare provider if you have an injury that penetrates into your body. Deep wounds need to be cleaned right away and may need to be closed with stitches. A provider may prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection.
Go to the nearest emergency room if you have symptoms of gas gangrene, especially if you’ve recently had a deep injury or surgery. It can be fatal if not treated quickly.
It might be helpful to ask your provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Gas gangrene is a rare but life-threatening infection. It’s treatable if caught early. But it can get worse quickly — within minutes to hours of you noticing symptoms. Don’t wait to seek medical attention if you think you could have gas gangrene.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/14/2023.
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