5 Myths About Flesh-Eating Bacteria Doctors Want To Debunk

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Necrotizing fasciitis and vibrio vulnificus, also referred to as flesh-eating bacteria, sound like something straight out of a zombie movie. But if you've been paying attention to the news recently, then you know they exist IRL. Before you decide to encase yourself in a plastic bubble, it's important to know that although flesh-eating bacteria is real, it's also rare. The idea that people are contracting it everywhere, all the time is just one of many myths about flesh-eating bacteria; others include the notion that the bacteria actually eats the skin and that it's contagious.

Instances of flesh-eating bacteria increase during the summer months, and recent news stories detail almost a dozen cases — some fatal — in a handful of states. "Those headlines cause a lot of panic, but if you’re a healthy individual and practice good hygiene, there’s a low risk of you contracting it," Dr. Niket Sonpal, an internist and gastroenterologist, and faculty member at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, tells Bustle.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this rare bacterial infection is most commonly the result of group A streptococcus, the same bacteria that causes step throat. It can also develop from vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria found in warm coastal waters. Bacteria enters the skin through cuts, scrapes, burns, insect bites, and wounds. Vibrio can also be contracted from eating raw shellfish. There are only around 700 to 1,200 cases of this infection in the U.S. every year, the CDC says.

In addition, people with diabetes, kidney disease, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, and compromised immune systems are at a higher risk for flesh-eating bacterial infections than the general population. Because flesh-eating bacteria spreads quickly, early diagnosis and treatment are key to recovery. If you notice an area of skin that is red and appears to be swelling rapidly, and you have severe pain and a fever, seek medical attention immediately. The infection can be treated with antibiotics or surgery, the CDC says, but up to one in three people who contract the infection will die.

Though it is a very serious type of infection requiring immediate medical attention, it is not nearly as common as news reports would have you believe. Here are some other myths about flesh-eating bacteria you can stop believing.

1. Myth: Flesh-Eating Bacteria Eats Your Body

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Although it's often referred to as flesh-eating bacteria, necrotizing fasciitis actually doesn't "eat" your body. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, necrotizing fasciitis translates as "decaying infection of the fascia." The infection causes the body's soft tissue to die. There's actually no eating involved.

"Contrary to what some may believe, the bacteria behind necrotizing fasciitis aren’t actually named for some tissue-devouring power. But they are known to release toxins that ultimately cause tissue to die," Dr. Sonpal says.

2. Myth: Flesh-Eating Bacteria Is Contagious

Because it's rarely contagious, someone who contracts flesh-eating bacteria won't be ferried away to an isolation unit. "Since necrotizing fasciitis is almost always caused by a break in the skin, it is very unlikely to be passed on from person to person," Dr. Sonpal says.

3. Myth: Flesh-Eating Bacteria Is Common

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A study published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology reported that, globally, only 35 people a year die from vibrio vulnificus, and 93% of those cases are from eating contaminated shellfish. Another study published in the journal Epidemiology and Infection found that only five out of every 1 million people per year die from necrotizing fasciitis. So while you hear a lot about it, it's actually not that common.

"This bacteria relies on the vulnerability of their 'host,' meaning they’re more likely to infect you if you are exposed to a lot of the bacteria in a short period of time and there’s a way for the bacteria to break through your natural defenses (either because you have a deficient immune system or a weakness in your skin barrier) and it accesses your bloodstream," Dr. Sonpal explains.

4. Myth: Flesh-Eating Bacteria Comes From Bananas

Turns out, there's an urban legend that bananas can cause necrotizing fasciitis. If you haven't heard this one, the website Culinary Lore reported that a phony email chain claiming to be from the CDC cautioned people to avoid bananas because they spread flesh-eating bacteria.

"While a popular story proclaimed that bananas could carry flesh-eating bacteria, the bacteria would not survive on a banana," Dr. Sonpal says. The CDC, FDA, and International Banana Association also released statements setting the record straight.

5. Myth: There's No Way To Protect Yourself

Your chances of contracting necrotizing fasciitis are low. You can reduce your risk even more by taking a few extra precautions. If you have a compromised immune system, wear protective footwear on the beach to avoid cutting yourself, and avoid eating and handling raw shellfish.

In addition, Dr. Sonpal advises that everyone wear gloves while shucking oysters, muscles, and crabs. Eat shellfish promptly after cooking it and immediately refrigerate the leftovers. If you have a cut or open wound, avoid going into the water, and seek medical attention for any deep or puncture wounds.

But also, don't let fear of flesh-eating bacteria stop you from living your best life this summer; it is much less common than news reports would have you think.