In Brief

Kentucky Man Gets 'Flesh-Eating' Bacteria After Cracking Knuckles

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

A man in Kentucky developed a life-threatening infection from "flesh-eating bacteria" — and nearly lost his hand — after cracking his knuckles, according to news reports.

The 31-year-old man, Antoine Boylston, was at work one day in April 2016 when he cracked his knuckles — a frequent habit of his, according to the Daily Mail. But afterwards, he was in so much pain that he thought he'd broken his pinkie. In fact, as his doctors later told him, cracking his knuckles could have caused the infection by opening an existing scab on his hand, allowing bacteria to get into the wound.

Boylston felt so ill that by the end of the day, he went to the hospital. "By the time I arrived, my right hand had started to darken and swell," Boylston told the Daily Mail.

Doctors diagnosed him with necrotizing fasciitis — a serious bacterial infection that destroys skin and muscle tissue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Several types of bacteria can cause necrotizing fasciitis, including group A Streptococcus (group A strep), Klebsiella, Clostridium, Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus, according to the CDC. Most commonly, people get necrotizing fasciitis when the bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin, the CDC said. In Boylston's case, doctors suspect the bacteria got into his body through a broken scab on his knuckle.

The bacteria can spread quickly once inside the body, and symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis can start within hours of an injury. The skin may become red or purplish from the infection, and some people get ulcers, blisters or black spots on their skin, according to the CDC. Patients with the infection often experience pain that they describe as hurting much more than they would expect based on how their wound looks, the CDC says.

Boylston had emergency surgery, which required doctors to open up his arm from his elbow to his fingers to cut the infection out. He spent a week in the intensive care unit.

"Doctors warned I may lose my hand —  but if I had waited much longer [to go to the hospital] I could've lost the entire arm or died," Boylston said. "I thought a flesh-eating bug was something people got in the movies — not from cracking their knuckles too much," he said.

Boylston needed a skin graft on his arm and hand, which doctors performed by taking skin from his thigh. Doctors also needed to amputated Boylston's pinkie.

Boylston said that now, only two fingers on his hand function properly, and he has trouble holding small items like pocket change. "But, I’m alive — and I will never crack my knuckles again — I can't," Boylston said.

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.