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    Gas gangrene

    Tissue infection - Clostridial; Gangrene - gas; Myonecrosis; Clostridial infection of tissues

    Gas gangrene is a potentially deadly form of tissue death (gangrene).

    See also: Necrotizing subcutaneous infection


    Gas gangrene is rare in the United States. The condition is most often caused by a bacteria called Clostridium perfringens. However, it also can be caused by Group A streptococcus. Staphylococcus aureus and Vibrio vulnificus can cause similar infections.

    Clostridium is found most everywhere. As the bacteria grow inside the body, it makes gas andharmful substances (toxins)that can damage body tissues, cells, and blood vessels.

    Gas gangrene develops suddenly. Itusually occurs at the site of trauma or a recent surgical wound.About 1 in 5 cases occur without an irritating event. Patients most at risk for this usually have underlying blood vessel disease (atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries), diabetes, or colon cancer.


    Gas gangrene causes very painful swelling. The skin turnspale to brownish-red. If you press on the swollen area with your fingers, you may feel gas as a crackly sensation. The edges of the infected area grow so quickly that changes can be seen over a few minutes. The areamay be completely destroyed.

    Symptoms include:

    • Air under the skin (subcutaneous emphysema)
    • Blisters filled with brown-red fluid
    • Drainage from the tissues, foul-smelling brown-red or bloody fluid (serosanguineous discharge)
    • Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
    • Moderate to high fever
    • Moderate to severe pain around a skin injury
    • Pale skin color, later becoming dusky and changing to dark red or purple
    • Progressive swelling around a skin injury
    • Sweating
    • Vesicle formation, combining into large blisters
    • Yellow color to the skin (jaundice)

    Note: Symptoms usually begin suddenly and quickly worsen.

    If the condition is not treated, the person can develop shock with decreased blood pressure (hypotension), kidney failure, coma, and finally death.

    Exams and Tests

    The health care provider will perform a physical exam. This may reveal signs of shock.

    Tests that may be done include:

    • Tissue and fluid cultures to test for Clostridium bacteria
    • Blood culture to determine the bacteria causing the infection
    • Gram stain of fluid from the infected area
    • X-ray, CT scan, or MRI of the area may show gas in the tissues.


    Surgery is needed quickly to remove dead, damaged, and infected tissue. This is called debridement.

    Surgical removal (amputation) of an arm or leg may be needed to control the spread of infection. Amputation sometimes must be donebefore all test results are available.

    You will also be givenantibiotics, usually penicillin-type and clindamycin. These medicines will be given through a vein (intravenously).Doctors have tried hyperbaric oxygen for this condition, with varying degrees of success. Pain medicines may also be prescribed.

    Outlook (Prognosis)

    Gas gangreneusually begins suddenly and quickly gets worse. It is often deadly.

    Possible Complications

    • Coma
    • Delirium
    • Disfiguring or disabling permanent tissue damage
    • Jaundice with liver damage
    • Kidney failure
    • Shock
    • Spread of infection through the body (sepsis)
    • Stupor

    When to Contact a Medical Professional

    This is an emergency condition requiring immediate medical attention.

    Call your heath care provider if you have signs of infection around a skin wound. Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911), if you have symptoms of gas gangrene.


    Clean any skin injury thoroughly. Watch for signs of infection (such as redness, pain, drainage, or swelling around a wound), and consult your health care provider promptly if these occur.


    Gerding DN, Johnson S. Clostridial infections. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds.Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 304.


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      A Closer Look

        Self Care

          Tests for Gas gangrene

            Review Date: 12/6/2011

            Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine. Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

            The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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