Streptococcal infections that start in the skin can sometimes spread elsewhere, resulting in a rare but potentially life-threatening condition called necrotizing fasciitis, sometimes referred to as flesh-eating bacterial syndrome. S. pyogenes is one of several species that can cause this rare but potentially-fatal condition; others include Klebsiella, Clostridium, Escherichia coli, S. aureus, and Aeromonas hydrophila.
Necrotizing fasciitis occurs when the fascia, a thin layer of connective tissue between the skin and muscle, becomes infected. Severe invasive necrotizing fasciitis due to Streptococcus pyogenes occurs when virulence factors that are responsible for adhesion and invasion overcome host defenses. S. pyogenes invasins allow bacterial cells to adhere to tissues and establish infection. Bacterial proteases unique to S. pyogenes aggressively infiltrate and destroy host tissues, inactivate complement, and prevent neutrophil migration to the site of infection. The infection and resulting tissue death can spread very rapidly, as large areas of skin become detached and die. Treatment generally requires debridement (surgical removal of dead or infected tissue) or amputation of infected limbs to stop the spread of the infection; surgical treatment is supplemented with intravenous antibiotics and other therapies.
Necrotizing fasciitis does not always originate from a skin infection; in some cases there is no known portal of entry. Some studies have suggested that experiencing a blunt force trauma can increase the risk of developing streptococcal necrotizing fasciitis.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology