Necrotizing fasciitis: Classification, diagnosis, and management

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Abstract

Necrotizing fasciitis (NF), a life-threatening rare infection of the soft tissues, is a medical and surgical emergency. It is characterized by subtle, rapid onset of spreading inflammation and necrosis starting from the fascia, muscles, and subcutaneous fat, with subsequent necrosis of the overlying skin. Once suspected, immediate and extensive radical debridement of necrotic tissues is mandatory. Appropriate antibiotics and intensive general support avoid massive systemic diffusion of the infective process and are the key for successful treatment. However, early diagnosis is missed or delayed in 85% to 100% of cases in large published series: because of the lack of specific clinical features in the initial stage of the disease, it is often underestimated or confused with cellulitis or abscess. Mortality rates are still high and have shown no tendency to decrease in the last 100 years. Unfortunately, the prevalence of the disease is such that physicians rarely become sufficiently confident with NF to be able to proceed with rapid diagnosis and management. This review covers the literature published in MEDLINE in the period 1970 to December 31, 2010. Particular attention is given to the clinical and laboratory elements to be considered for diagnosis. A wide variety of diagnostic tools have been described to facilitate and hasten the diagnosis of NF, but the most important tool for early diagnosis still remains a high index of clinical suspicion.

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