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Gas gangrene
Gas gangrene

Gas gangrene
Gas gangrene



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

See also: Necrotizing subcutaneous infection

Alternative Names:

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

Causes, incidence, and risk factors:

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.

Under low-oxygen (anaerobic ) conditions, Clostridium produces toxins that cause tissue death and related symptoms.

Gas gangrene generally occurs at the site of trauma or a recent surgical wound. The onset of gas gangrene is sudden and dramatic. About a third of cases occur on their own. Patients who develop this disease in this manner often have underlying blood vessel disease (atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries), diabetes, or colon cancer.

Clostridium bacteria produce many different toxins, four of which (alpha, beta, epsilon, iota) can cause potentially deadly syndromes. The toxins cause damage to tissues, blood cells, and blood vessels.


The site of infection becomes inflamed with a pale to brownish-red and very painful tissue swelling. If you press on the swollen tissue with your fingers, you may feel gas as a crackly sensation. The edges of the infected area expand so quickly that changes are visible over a few minutes. The involved tissue is completely destroyed.

Symptoms include:

  • Air under the skin (subcutaneous emphysema )
  • Anxiety
  • 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 a shock-like syndrome with decreased blood pressure (hypotension), kidney failure, coma, and finally death.

Signs and tests:

The person may be in shock. A health care professional might feel air in the tissues (crepitus ).

  • Anaerobic tissue and fluid cultures may reveal Clostridium species.
  • Blood culture may grow the bacteria causing the infection.
  • Gram stain of fluid from the infected area may show gram-positive rods (Clostridium species) or other bacterial types.
  • X-ray , CT scan, or MRI of the area may show gas in the tissues.


The person will need to have surgery quickly to remove dead, damaged, and infected tissue (debridement). Surgical removal (amputation) of an arm or leg may be needed to control the spread of infection.

Patients should get antibiotics, preferably penicillin-type. Initially, patients receive antibiotics through a vein (intravenously). Some people may need analgesics to control pain. Doctors have tried hyperbaric oxygen for this condition, with varying degrees of success.

Support Groups:

Expectations (prognosis):

Gas gangrene is progressive and often fatal.

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

Calling your health care provider:

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.

Review Date: 11/1/2007
Reviewed By: Kenneth M. Wener, MD, Department of Infectious Diseases, Lahey Clinic, Burlington, MA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. 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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