Gangrene is a word used to refer to decaying or dead tissue. Usually gangrene occurs on the hands or feet, but it can also occur anywhere on the body as well as in the muscles or internal organs. It occurs when the blood supply is cut off or severely diminished, due to an infection, disease, or trauma. The cells of the body cannot survive without an adequate supply of blood to provide needed oxygen, nutrients, and antibodies.
Gangrene is not, in any way, contagious.
Symptoms that may indicate the presence of gangrene include, a wound or sore that discharges pus or has a foul-smelling odor, moderate to severe pain, (may or may not occur suddenly) swelling, numbness, discolored or bruised-looking skin, pale skin, a hard area under the skin, or fever. If any of these symptoms are present, a physician should be consulted immediately.
There are three distinct types of gangrene, wet gangrene (on the surface of the skin), dry gangrene (under the surface of the skin), and gas gangrene.
Wet gangrene occurs when a bacterial infection is involved. The site of wet gangrene will exhibit oozing, pus, and a moist blackening surface, along with pain and swelling. Wet gangrene spreads rapidly and is the most dangerous form of gangrene.
Dry gangrene develops more slowly than wet gangrene. The area does not become infected. The circulatory effect is gradual. Initially the skin my feel cold and dry. Discoloration will appear and the area will appear to mummify.
Gas gangrene occurs when a particular type of bacteria causes an infection. As the infection progresses it produces a toxic gas. Gas gangrene is a form of wet gangrene and as such progresses rapidly and needs immediate treatment.
One of the greatest dangers associated with gangrene is septic shock which can occur quite suddenly when a major infection, as may be associated with gangrene, spreads throughout the body, causing organ failure. An individual with septic shock may exhibit confusion, rapid heart beat, fever or chills, low blood pressure, and shortness of breath. Septic shock is more common among the elderly, the very young, and those with compromised immune systems. Septic shock requires immediate medical attention as it can be fatal.
A physician may use a variety of means to determine if gangrene is present. First he/she will examine the patient and listen to their reported symptoms. He may then take blood and tissue samples, or order x-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI. Additionally, blood flow may be tested, and exploratory surgery may be used to determine the extent of the infection.
If the presence of gangrene is confirmed, treatment will begin immediately. Dead tissue cannot be regenerated, and it will be removed surgically. Antibiotics will be administered to deal with any infection, and pain medications will help make the patient more comfortable. If available, oxygen therapy may be used to deliver pressurized, concentrations of oxygen to the body.
Anyone can develop gangrene, after surgery, from a wound, a burn, and even from frostbite. Those with compromised immune systems, as well as diabetics, the elderly, the obese, smokers, and those with atherosclerosis are more susceptible to gangrene than are others.
Gangrene may not be completely preventable. However, there are things that can be done to help prevent it.
1. Make sure all serious wounds, burns, and frostbite are immediately treated by a physician.
2. Care for minor injuries by washing well with tepid, soapy water. Apply a thin layer of antiseptic, if appropriate. Keep the area clean and dry until healed.
3. If you are diabetic, take time to keep your skin clean and dry, and immediately treat even minor skin problems, especially on the hands and feet.
4. Live a healthy lifestyle. Control your weight. Don’t smoke. Exercise.
5. Consult a physician immediately if you have any concerns about your health.