Girl Develops 'Flesh Eating' Infection After Strep Throat

An image of Streptococcus bacteria
An image of Streptococcus bacteria. (Image credit: CDC/Janice Haney Carr/Bette Jensen)

A 6-year-old girl in Ohio recently needed to have her leg amputated after she developed a rare complication from an infection with strep throat bacteria. But how does this relatively common type of bacteria cause such an extreme complication?

The girl, Tessa Puma, was treated for strep throat in early March, the Akron Beacon Journal reported. At that time, she didn't have symptoms of the illness, but the doctors treated her because she had tested positive for group A Streptococcus, the bacterium that causes strep, after her father had strep throat, the newspaper said.

Then, around March 25, she became sick with flu-like symptoms and had pain in her arm and leg; she told her parents that her skin was too painful to touch, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. At the hospital, doctors tested her for the flu, and the results were positive. But after performing additional tests, doctors diagnosed her with necrotizing fasciitis, or "flesh eating bacteria," a serious bacterial infection that destroys skin and muscle tissue.

Several types of bacteria can cause necrotizing fasciitis, but group A Streptococcus is the most common cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In people with this condition, the bacteria infect connective tissue surrounding the muscles, nerves, fat and blood vessels, the CDC said. The bacteria release toxins that kill the tissue. [27 Devastating Infectious Diseases]

People can carry group A strep in their noses, throats and skin without showing any symptoms. But when these bacteria get into deep tissue — either through an open wound, or through the bloodstream — it can cause necrotizing fasciitis, according to information on the U.K. National Health Service's website.

Since 2010, there have been about 700 to 1,100 reported cases of necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A strep in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC.

In Tessa's case, the tissue death was so extensive that doctors needed to amputate her leg from the knee down, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. She will also require additional surgeries and skin grafts, and will need a long period of physical rehabilitation.

But her parents are optimistic that Tessa, who takes part in competitive dancing, will continue with the sport. "I told everyone this is not going to stop her," Tessa's mother, Tina Puma, was quoted as saying. "She's going to get any training she can to continue. That's her dream."

In mid-March, there were also reports that a Michigan man required amputations after he developed septic shock following a strep throat infection.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.