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What are the signs of flesh-eating bacteria? Florida man dies from infection

Anyone can get necrotizing fasciitis, but it’s rare. Some experts worry warmer waters are allowing bacteria to thrive.
/ Source: TODAY

A Florida man has died after an ordeal with flesh-eating bacteria that forced doctors to remove more than 25% of the skin on his body, his family said.

David Ireland, 50, of Orlando, passed away Thursday after several surgeries to try to stop the spread of necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A strep, his brother Daniel Ireland announced on a fundraising page set up for David’s wife Jody and their two daughters.

“He fought very hard against this disease and all of us will miss him dearly,” he wrote.

Daniel Ireland declined to comment to TODAY, citing Jody Ireland’s request for privacy.

The family didn’t know how David Ireland — who didn’t go in the ocean or swim in lakes — contracted the disease, which he initially thought was the flu, his brother told the Miami Herald. He did swim in the pool at his condo in Orlando, he added.

Ireland recently noticed a little cut, and then his leg started to hurt, first in the knee and then in the hip, his mother Lois Ireland told

“The next thing you know, it’s strep A,” she said. “It traveled extremely fast.”

David Ireland ended up in critical condition at the intensive care unit of an Orlando hospital, where his kidneys failed and doctors removed more than a quarter of his skin to try to stop the infection, to no avail, his brother wrote.

David Ireland had diabetes, his mother said, a health condition that weakens the body’s immune system and can put people at higher risk for the bacterial infection.

Who can get the infection?

Anyone can get necrotizing fasciitis, but it’s rare, with 9,871 deaths in the U.S. between 2003 and 2013, a study found. Researchers didn't find a significant change in the mortality rate over time.

The microbes, which can live in coastal waters, enter the body through a cut, burn, insect bite or other break in the skin, then attack muscles and other organs, quickly destroying the tissues.

Besides diabetes, immune-compromising conditions including kidney disease, cirrhosis of the liver and cancer can put people at higher risk for infection.

Some experts believe cases of necrotizing fasciitis may be on the rise because of climate change, with rising water temperatures potentially to blame for cases in the Gulf of Mexico and other waters, including previously rarely affected waters in the Delaware Bay. The bacteria thrive when the waters are warmer, Dr. Stacey Baker, an infectious disease specialist in Miami, Florida, told NBC News.

Once contracted, the infection spreads very quickly and requires rapid antibiotic treatment and prompt surgery, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted. Up to one in three patients dies.

Group A strep — the same bacteria that cause strep throat — are thought to be the most common cause, but other type of bacteria, such as Vibrio vulnificus, can also be responsible. Still, contact with group A strep or V. vulnificus rarely leads to infection in healthy people.

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What are the symptoms?

Look out for warning signs such as:

  • a red or swollen area of skin that spreads quickly
  • severe pain
  • fever
  • dizziness
  • changes in the color of the skin
  • one or more black spots on the skin
  • ulcers or blisters on the skin

If antibiotics can’t reach all of the infected areas because the bacteria have killed too much tissue and reduced blood flow, doctors have to surgically remove the dead tissue, the CDC noted.

How to protect yourself:

  • Clean all minor cuts, blisters and wounds with soap and water.
  • Cover draining or open wounds with clean, dry bandages until they heal.
  • If you have an open wound, avoid swimming pools, hot tubs and natural bodies of water like lakes, rivers and oceans.