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Necrotizing Fasciitis Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Richard F Edlich, MD, PhD, FACS, FACEP; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
Updated: Aug 09, 2016


Diagnosis of necrotizing fasciitis can be difficult and requires a high degree of suspicion. In many cases of necrotizing fasciitis, antecedent trauma or surgery can be identified. Surprisingly, the initial lesion is often trivial, such as an insect bite, minor abrasion, boil, or injection site. Idiopathic cases are not uncommon, however.

Olafsson et al indicate that the hallmark symptom of necrotizing fasciitis is intense pain and tenderness over the involved skin and underlying muscle.[47] The intensity of the pain often causes suspicion of a torn or ruptured muscle. This severe pain is frequently present before the patient develops fever, malaise, and myalgias.

In some cases, the symptoms may begin at a site distant from the initial traumatic insult. Pain may be out of proportion to physical findings. Over the next several hours to days, the local pain progresses to anesthesia.

Other indicative findings include edema extending beyond the area of erythema, skin vesicles, and crepitus. McHenry et al and others have noted that the subcutaneous tissue demonstrates a wooden, hardened feel in cases of necrotizing fasciitis.[28] The fascial planes and muscle groups cannot be detected by palpation.

A history of comorbid factors, including diabetes mellitus, should be sought in all cases of suspected necrotizing fasciitis. A retrospective, multicenter study by van Stigt et al of 58 patients with necrotizing fasciitis found cardiovascular disease to be the most common comorbidity (39.7% of patients).[39]


Physical Examination

Physical findings may not be commensurate with the degree of patient discomfort. Early in the disease course, the patient may look deceptively well; unfortunately, this may interfere with early detection, which is key to a favorable outcome. Soon, however, the patient will usually begin to appear moderately to severely toxic.

Typically, the infection begins with an area of erythema that quickly spreads over a course of hours to days. The redness quickly spreads, and its margins move out into normal skin without being raised or sharply demarcated. As the infection progresses, the skin near the site of insult develops a dusky or purplish discoloration. Multiple identical patches expand to produce a large area of gangrenous skin, as the erythema continues to spread.

Iwata et al reported that 2 of 3 patients who lacked inflammatory signs such as redness and heat experienced fulminant progression of necrotizing fasciitis and death.[48]

The initial necrosis appears as a massive undermining of the skin and subcutaneous layer. If the skin is open, gloved fingers can pass easily between the 2 layers and may reveal yellowish-green necrotic fascia. If the skin is unbroken, a scalpel incision will reveal it.

The normal skin and subcutaneous tissue become loosened from the rapidly spreading deeper necrotic fascia that is a great distance from the initiating wound. Fascial necrosis is typically more advanced than the appearance suggests.

Anesthesia in the involved region may be detected, and it usually is caused by thrombosis of the subcutaneous blood vessels, leading to necrosis of nerve fibers.

Without treatment, secondary involvement of deeper muscle layers may occur, resulting in myositis or myonecrosis. Normally, however, the muscular layer remains healthy red with normal bleeding muscle under the yellowish-green fascia.

Usually, the most important signs are tissue necrosis, putrid discharge, bullae, severe pain, gas production, rapid burrowing through fascial planes, and lack of classical tissue inflammatory signs.

Usually, some degree of intravascular volume loss is detectable on clinical examination. Other general signs, such as fever and severe systemic reactions, may be present.

Local crepitation can occur in more than one half of patients. This is an infrequent finding, specific but not sensitive, particularly in cases of nonclostridial necrotizing fasciitis.

Fournier gangrene in males begins with local tenderness, itching, edema, and erythema of the scrotal skin. This progresses to necrosis of the scrotal fascia. The scrotum enlarges to several times its normal diameter. If the process continues beyond the penile-scrotal region to the abdomen or the upper legs, the normal picture of necrotizing fasciitis can be seen.

In males, the scrotal subcutaneous layer is so thin that most patients present after the skin is already exhibiting signs of necrosis. In 2-7 days, the skin becomes necrotic, and a characteristic black spot can be seen. Early on, this infection may resemble acute orchitis, epididymitis, torsion, or even a strangulated hernia.

In women, Fournier gangrene acts more like necrotizing fasciitis because of the thicker subcutaneous layers involving the labia majora and the perineum.


Complications may include the following:

  • Renal failure
  • Septic shock with cardiovascular collapse
  • Scarring with cosmetic deformity
  • Limb loss
  • Sepsis
  • Toxic shock syndrome

Metastatic cutaneous plaques may occur in necrotizing fasciitis. Septicemia is typical and leads to severe systemic toxicity and rapid death unless appropriately treated.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Richard F Edlich, MD, PhD, FACS, FACEP FASPS, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Plastic Surgery, Biomedical Engineering and Emergency Medicine, University of Virginia Health Care System

Richard F Edlich, MD, PhD, FACS, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Burn Association, American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Surgeons, American Society of Plastic Surgeons, American Spinal Injury Association, Plastic Surgery Research Council, Society of University Surgeons, Surgical Infection Society, American Surgical Association, American Trauma Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


William B Long, III, MD, FACS President, Trauma Specialists, LLP; President, Pacific Surgical, PC; Trauma Medical Director, Legacy Emanuel Trauma Center, Legacy Emanuel Hospital

William B Long, III, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Surgeons, American Thoracic Society, American Trauma Society, Society of Thoracic Surgeons, Pacific Coast Surgical Association, Western Trauma Association, North Pacific Surgical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

K Dean Gubler, DO, MPH Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Surgery, Oregon Health Sciences University; Consulting Surgeon, Department of Surgery, Pacific Surgical, PC, Mount Hood Medical Center, Good Samaritan Hospital, Legacy Emanuel Hospital Trauma Program

K Dean Gubler, DO, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Surgeons, Society of Critical Care Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Michael Stuart Bronze, MD David Ross Boyd Professor and Chairman, Department of Medicine, Stewart G Wolf Endowed Chair in Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Oklahoma Health Science Center; Master of the American College of Physicians; Fellow, Infectious Diseases Society of America

Michael Stuart Bronze, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Medical Association, Oklahoma State Medical Association, Southern Society for Clinical Investigation, Association of Professors of Medicine, American College of Physicians, Infectious Diseases Society of America

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Joseph U Becker, MD Fellow, Global Health and International Emergency Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine

Joseph U Becker, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, Emergency Medicine Residents Association, Phi Beta Kappa, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Shahin Javaheri, MD Chief, Department of Plastic Surgery, Martinez Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic; Consulting Staff, Advanced Aesthetic Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery

Shahin Javaheri, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and American Society of Plastic Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Wayne Karl Stadelmann, MD Stadelmann Plastic Surgery, PC

Wayne Karl Stadelmann, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Surgeons, American Society of Plastic Surgeons, New Hampshire Medical Society, Northeastern Society of Plastic Surgeons, and Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment


The authors wish to thank Research Assistants Julie Garrison and Jennifer Nearants for their assistance with this Medscape Reference article.

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Left upper extremity shows necrotizing fasciitis in an individual who used illicit drugs. Cultures grew Streptococcus milleri and anaerobes (Prevotella species). Patient would grease, or lick, the needle before injection.
Necrotizing fasciitis at a possible site of insulin injection in the left upper part of the thigh in a 50-year-old obese woman with diabetes.
Photomicrograph of Fournier gangrene (necrotizing fasciitis), oil immersion at 1000X magnification. Note the acute inflammatory cells in the necrotic tissue. Bacteria are located in the haziness of their cytoplasm. Courtesy of Billie Fife, MD, and Thomas A. Santora, MD.
Left lower extremity in a 56-year-old patient with alcoholism who was found comatose after binge drinking. Surgical drainage was performed to treat the pyomyositis-related, large, non–foul-smelling (sweetish) bullae. Gram staining showed the presence of gram-positive rods. Cultures revealed Clostridium perfringens. The diagnosis was clostridial myonecrosis.
Sixty-year-old woman who had undergone postvaginal hysterectomy and repair of a rectal prolapse has a massive perineal ulceration with foul-smelling discharge. Cultures revealed Escherichia coli and Bacteroides fragilis. The diagnosis was perineal gangrene.
Necrotizing fascitis of entire thoracolumbar posterior area in 20-year-old patient with chronic myelogenous leukemia and neutropenia (WBC count, 680/uL). Cultures revealed gram-negative Pseudomonas species and Bacteroides fragilis.
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