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What is necrotizing fasciitis? Man contracts flesh-eating disease and he's lucky to be alive

Korin Miller
After being infected with a flesh-eating bacteria, Josh Muñoz is lucky to be alive. Now friends are trying to raise money for the father of three and his wife to pay for their medical bills. (Photo: GoFundMe).

A Michigan man discovered that he had a flesh-eating disease shortly after pieces of his skin started falling off in the shower.

Josh Muñoz told the Houston Chronicle that he was visiting Houston with his wife to celebrate their first anniversary when he noticed that he was losing flesh in the shower. “My skin was being washed away,” Muñoz said. “Not like a sunburn, like enough for me to know something was majorly wrong.”

Muñoz said he “was losing meat off my leg, you could see everything.” He consulted with his doctor and was told to go to the ER ASAP. “There was no way I was going to the emergency room 1,500 miles away from my three kids,” Muñoz said. “So we jumped in the truck and drove as fast as we could.”

Muñoz’s wife Sarah drove the 20 hours back to Michigan and he said he started to feel tired and delusional along the way, along with losing consciousness. At one point, he asked his wife if they could stop at a hotel. “My wife said no,” Muñoz said. “She said we had to drive further, we have to make it to the ER.”

“Within 20 minutes of seeing me, the doctor said he was going to prep for emergency surgery,” Muñoz said. “He said I had necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating disease, and that he needed to save my life.” After surgery, Muñoz said the doctor told him there was an 80 percent chance he would have died in his sleep if he had stopped on the way back from his vacation. “I was so thankful to my wife for being persistent and keeping me going,” he said.

Necrotizing fasciitis is a rare bacterial infection that spreads quickly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although more than one type of bacteria can cause the condition, group A Streptococcus is thought to be the most common.

The bacteria have to get into a person’s skin somehow. “It can be due to an injury such as a cut or burn, something as trivial as an insect bite that pushes bacteria under the skin, and sometimes you don’t know what the inciting incident is,” William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

In general, people usually develop symptoms like a red or swollen area of skin that spreads fast, severe pain and a fever, infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Typically, someone’s skin wouldn’t “fall off” early on, but “if it’s progressing rapidly, it could happen,” Adalja says.

Here’s why someone’s skin can “fall off,” according to Adalja: “Necrotizing fasciitis is a deeper infection of the skin and skin structure. Things are detaching from one another. If you’re scrubbing at it, the pressure can cause the skin and surrounding tissue to actually detach.” However, in most cases, people with necrotizing fasciitis “are too sick and in too much pain to be in the shower,” Schaffner says.

Given that the early symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis are nonspecific, “the infection can often spread fairly substantially before it becomes evident that the patient has an infection,” Schaffner says. But as the disease progresses, the bacteria can get into the bloodstream and cause sepsis (a life-threatening infection), the person’s blood pressure can drop, the person may feel woozy and start fainting, he says.

Necrotizing fasciitis is usually detected through a blood test and CT scan, which can  show the infection, Schaffner says. As for treatment, “two things are critical: antibiotics and surgery to remove the dead tissue.” Necrotizing fasciitis is a serious infection and it’s crucial to act quickly. “People can recover, but sometimes they have to have plastic surgery because the damage is so severe.”

Muñoz has had three surgeries and a pigskin graft, and will be bedridden for up to six months. It’s also likely that he’ll have more surgeries in the future. One of his former customers from his work as a contractor set up a GoFundMe to help raise money for his family while he recovers.

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