When many people hear the term “gangrene,” they may think of toes or fingers being affected by hypothermia, which means the person’s body temperature has dropped, and remained, below 95 degrees. But with Fournier’s gangrene, your genitals and the area around them are affected. And hypothermia doesn’t cause it.
Gangrene happens when body tissue is dead or is dying (known as necrosis) because of a lack of blood flow or a bacterial infection.
Fournier’s gangrene involves an infection in the scrotum (which includes the testicles), penis, or perineum. The perineum is the area between the scrotum and anus for a man; or the area between the anus and vulva for a woman. The dead or dying tissue in people with this type of gangrene is often found in the genitals and can stretch to the thighs, stomach, and chest.
How Common Is It?
Fournier’s gangrene is rare. While it’s more common in men, women and children also can get it.
The disease is most often found in men between the ages of 50 and 60. Men are 10 times more likely than women to have Fournier’s gangrene.
Fournier’s gangrene is even rarer in children.
Fournier’s gangrene usually happens because of an infection in, or near, your genitals. Sources of the infection can include:
- Urinary tract infections
- Bladder infections
- Abscesses (swollen body tissue that contains pus)
In children, the causes can include:
- Insect bites
While not actually considered causes of Fournier’s gangrene, there are other conditions and medications that experts believe may make you more likely to get this disease, including:
- Alcohol abuse
- Trauma to the genital area
- Cirrhosis (a liver disease)
Doctors can find the cause of Fournier’s gangrene in about 90% of the cases.
People with Fournier’s gangrene can have various symptoms, including:
- Pain and swelling in the genitals or anal area
- Unpleasant odor coming from the affected skin tissue
- Crackling sound when touching the affected area
You should see a doctor immediately. Treatments include:
- Antibiotics given by IV (through your veins).
- Surgery to remove the dead and dying tissue and to confirm the diagnosis.
You may also need reconstructive surgery after your infection is under control. And some people need colostomies (for getting rid of poop) and catheters (for getting rid of pee), depending on the area that’s affected. Some people also need hyperbaric oxygen therapy — this means you are given pure oxygen while in a pressurized room.
You may also get a tetanus shot if you have an injury.
Can You Prevent It?
There are some steps you can take to lower your chances of getting Fournier’s gangrene:
- If you have diabetes, check your genitals and surrounding areas for wounds or signs of infection, as well as for swelling or drainage.
- If you are obese or even just overweight, try to lose some weight.
- If you smoke or chew tobacco, stop. Tobacco use can damage blood vessels.
- To lower your risk of infection, wash open wounds with soap and water and keep them dry and clean until they heal.