With summer just around the corner, many Canadians are looking forward to spending more time outdoors. But with the warmer weather comes a myriad of potential health hazards — some of which are deadly — that all Canadians should be aware of before delving into the season's festivities.

One rare health hazard that people tend to overlook is flesh-eating disease, a skin infection caused by an aggressive microscopic organism that kills soft tissue. Known medically as necrotizing fasciitis, the disease is extremely harmful and often leads to quick deaths, according to the CDC. 

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Symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis manifest quickly, initially starting off as soreness in the affected area and later turning into red or purple swelling. As the bacteria spreads through the bloodstream, it attacks soft tissues causing blisters and ulcers. Fever, chills and vomiting then quickly follow as a result of septic shock.

Flesh-eating bacteria is found in areas commonly frequented by recreationists during the summer. These include local ponds, lakes, beaches, fishing spots, whirlpools, hot tubs and even swimming pools.

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The risk of contracting necrotizing fasciitis is much higher when individuals swim with an open wound. There have been several cases where people who had paper-cut-sized wounds or new tattoos caught the infection after swimming in such areas. Some lucky individuals survived with only minimal scarring, while others had to get their limbs amputated or even died as a result.

While the CDC says incidents with flesh-eating bacteria are very rare, they are still a potential health risk, as the rise in temperatures during the summer can cause them to proliferate in greater quantities. That being said, proper care of wounds and swimming in sanitized waters will prevent infections. The CDC recommends the following actions:

  • Keep draining or open wounds covered with clean, dry bandages until healed.
  • Don’t delay first aid of even minor, non-infected wounds (like blisters, scrapes, or any break in the skin).
  • Avoid spending time in whirlpools, hot tubs, swimming pools, and natural bodies of water (e.g., lakes, rivers, oceans) if you have an open wound or skin infection.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub if washing is not possible.

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Swimming isn't the only way you can get infected

Necrotizing fasciitis is mainly caused by group A streptococcus, the same type of bacteria that causes strep throat. However, other bacteria such as KlebsiellaClostridiumEscherichia coliStaphylococcus aureus, and Aeromonas hydrophila are also associated with infections. These bacteria can be found in the soil, on playground surfaces and even on your own skin.

Earlier this year, an 8-year-old boy from Oregon contracted the infection through a wound he got from falling off his bike. Doctors amputated the leg with the infection, but he eventually died from the disease.

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Another case tells of a Niagara woman who contracted flesh-eating disease while helping her friends flip a house in Hamilton. The 38-year-old had accidentally cut her left leg on an old nail during the renovation. Although the cut wasn't deep at all, the woman said she had started to feel sick incredibly fast.

Doctors said they found black mould in her blood. She was left unconscious for a week with a ventilator in her throat, and her parents were even told that she wasn't going to live. But after a surgery, rounds of antibiotics and lots of rest over the course of multiple months, she was able to recover fully, with all her limbs still intact.

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Yet another incident tells of a Texas woman who died after eating raw oysters from Canada contaminated with flesh-eating bacteria. The woman contracted Vibrio vulnificus, an organism common in coastal waters (like in British Columbia) known to cause necrotizing fasciitis.

Within 48 hours of eating the oysters, the woman went into respiratory distress and she received severe wounds from the bacteria.

This summer, Canadians are advised to clean and disinfect any new wounds immediately and to avoid swimming in questionable waters this summer.

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