Gas gangrene is most often caused by a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens. It also can be caused by group A streptococcus, Staphylococcus aureus, and Vibrio vulnificus.
Clostridium is found nearly everywhere. As the bacteria grow inside the body, it makes gas and harmful substances (toxins) that can damage body tissues, cells, and blood vessels.
Gas gangrene develops suddenly. It usually occurs at the site of trauma or a recent surgical wound. In some cases, it occurs without an irritating event. Persons most at risk of gas gangrene usually have blood vessel disease (atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries), diabetes, or colon cancer.
Gas gangrene causes very painful swelling. The skin turns pale to brownish-red. When the swollen area is pressed, gas can be felt as a crackly sensation (crepitus). The edges of the infected area grow so quickly that changes can be seen over a few minutes. The area may be completely destroyed.
Onderdonk AB, Garrett WS. Gas gangrene and other Clostridium-associated diseases. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 246.
Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.