Gangrene refers to the death of body tissue due to a lack of blood flow or a bacterial infection. Gangrene most commonly affects the extremities, including your toes, fingers and limbs, but it can also occur in your muscles and internal organs.
Your chances of developing gangrene are higher if you have an underlying condition that can damage your blood vessels and affect blood flow, such as diabetes or atherosclerosis.
When gangrene affects your skin, signs and symptoms may include:
Skin discoloration — ranging from pale to blue, purple, black, bronze or red, depending on the type of gangrene you have
Severe pain followed by a feeling of numbness
A foul-smelling discharge leaking from a sore
If you have a type of gangrene that affects tissues beneath the surface of your skin, such as gas gangrene or internal gangrene, you may notice that:
The affected tissue is swollen and painful
You’re running a fever and feel unwell
A condition called septic shock can occur if a bacterial infection that originated in the gangrenous tissue spreads throughout your body. Signs and symptoms of septic shock include:
Low blood pressure
A body temperature greater than 100.4 F (38 C) or lower than 96.8 F (36 C)
Rapid heart rate
Shortness of breath
Gangrene may occur due to one or both of the following:
Lack of blood supply. Your blood provides oxygen, nutrients to feed your cells, and immune system components, such as antibodies, to ward off infections. Without a proper blood supply, cells can’t survive, and your tissue decays.
Infection. If bacteria thrive unchecked for long, infection can take over and cause your tissue to die, causing gangrene
Gangrene can lead to scarring or the need for reconstructive surgery. Sometimes, the amount of tissue death is so extensive that a body part, such as your foot, may need to be removed.
Gangrene that is infected with bacteria can spread quickly to other organs and may be fatal if left untreated.
Tissue that has been damaged by gangrene can’t be saved, but steps can be taken to prevent gangrene from progressing. These treatments include:
Surgery. Your doctor removes the dead tissue, which helps stop gangrene from spreading and allows healthy tissue to heal. If possible, your doctor may repair damaged or diseased blood vessels in order to increase blood flow to the affected area.
Antibiotics. Antibiotics given through a vein (intravenous) may be used to treat gangrene that’s become infected.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be used to treat gas gangrene.
Here are a few suggestions to help you reduce your risk of developing gangrene:
Care for your diabetes. If you have diabetes, make sure you examine your hands and feet daily for cuts, sores and signs of infection, such as redness, swelling or drainage. Ask your doctor to examine your hands and feet at least once a year.
Lose weight. Excess pounds not only put you at risk of diabetes, but also place pressure on your arteries, constricting blood flow and putting you at risk of infection and slow wound healing.
Don’t use tobacco. The chronic use of tobacco products can damage your blood vessels.
Help prevent infections. Wash any open wounds with a mild soap and water and try to keep them clean and dry until they heal.
Watch out when the temperature drops. Frostbitten skin can lead to gangrene, because frostbite reduces blood circulation in an affected area. If you notice that any area of your skin has become pale, hard, cold and numb after prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, call your doctor