'Red streak' on woman's thumb turns out to be rare flesh-eating bacteria

She thought she had the flu, at first, and didn’t go to the hospital right away.

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By Kerry Breen

A Tennessee woman who had the rare, often fatal "flesh-eating disease" is speaking out about how easily it can be spread. The disease, necrotizing fasciitis, can be contracted through any open wound.

Jayne Sharp said she was going about her plans one day in February, getting ready to throw a dinner party. She went to a local nail salon to have a manicure and went home to prepare dinner.

She said she got a cut that broke the skin during the manicure when her thumb was "stuck" with a tool, but she didn't think anything of it at the time.

"I responded with an ouch, and then I went right back to my telephone," Sharp told TODAY. "Two hours later, my thumb was throbbing."

She said she ignored the pain while she went ahead with the dinner party at her home.

At first, Sharp paid little attention to the injury, but it quickly became more painful. Jayne Sharp

But, once she started to feel sick, she said her symptoms quickly escalated and she was unable to do the dishes after the meal.

Initially, Sharp said she thought she was suffering from the flu and dreaded having to call her guests to tell them they'd been exposed to the illness.

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The next morning, following a sleepless night as the pain from her thumb kept her awake, Sharp called her daughter, a registered nurse, who insisted she see a doctor immediately.

Sharp went to Summit Medical Group, where she saw nurse practitioner Nikki Brown.

Brown administered a flu test, which came back negative. That's when she noticed a "red streak" on Sharp's thumb.

Jayne Sharp

"She gave me a pain shot and told me to go home and she wanted to know about any changes in my body, including that red streak," Sharp said.

She went home and fell asleep. At approximately 4 p.m., she said the nurse practitioner called to check in, waking her up from a nap.

When she looked at her hand, Sharp said, the streak had spread and was now past her elbow. Brown told her to go to the emergency room immediately, where Sharp was rushed into surgery.

The doctor who treated her, Urit Chaudhuri, told TODAY affiliate WBIR News that Sharp could have lost her arm "if she hadn't been diagnosed properly."

Sharp said that it took multiple surgeries to fully remove the bacteria from her hand. Jayne Sharp

Chaudhuri said that Brown's rapid realization that the problem was serious was key to getting Sharp the necessary treatment in time.

"I credit her with saving my life," Sharp said.

After 13 days in the hospital and three surgeries, including the removal of part of her thumb, Sharp said she finally went home and began physical therapy. While she has healed for the most part, she still has difficulty using the hand and fingers. She described her thumb as "really dead."

Sharp compared her injured thumb to her healthy thumb, showcasing the damage. Jayne Sharp

Sharp believes that she contracted the bacteria at the nail salon and reported it to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.

A TCDI spokesperson told KBIR that no problems were found at the salon during the annual inspection or during a follow-up inspection after her report.

Sharp said she believes that nail salons should be required to have stricter sanitation standards.

Salons in New York, Iowa and Texas are required to sterilize equipment, but regulations vary in different states.

Although it is extremely rare, Chaudhuri said that anyone who has an open wound could contract the bacteria, especially if they have other conditions.

"Basically you have a break in the skin and this bacteria gets introduced under the skin into the soft tissue and then into the blood stream," Chaudhuri told KBIR.

Sharp's diabetic status made her "more susceptible" to the infection, he said, since those with a weakened immune system are more likely to be at risk.