- Gangrene refers to dead or dying body tissue(s) that occur because of inadequate blood supply.
- There are two major types of gangrene, wet gangrene and dry gangrene.
- Dry gangrene can result from conditions that reduce or block arterial blood flow such as diabetes, arteriosclerosis, and tobacco addiction as well as from trauma, frostbite, or injury.
- Wet gangrene can result from the same causes as dry gangrene but always includes infection. In some cases of wet gangrene, the initial cause is considered to be the infection.
- Treatment for all cases of gangrene usually involves surgery, medical treatment, supportive care, and occasionally, rehabilitation.
What is gangrene?
Gangrene is a term that describes dead or dying body tissue(s) that occur because the local blood supply to the tissue is either lost or is inadequate to keep the tissue alive. Gangrene has been recognized as a localized area of tissue death since ancient times. The Greeks used the term gangraina to describe putrefaction (death) of tissue. Although many laypeople associate the term gangrene with a bacterial infection, the medical use of the term includes any cause that compromises the blood supply that results in tissue death. Consequently, a person can be diagnosed with gangrene but does not have to be "infected."
There are two major types of gangrene, referred to as dry and wet. Many cases of dry gangrene are not infected. All cases of wet gangrene are considered to be infected, almost always by bacteria. The most common sites for both wet and dry gangrene to occur are the digits (fingers and toes) and other extremities (hands, arms, feet, and legs).
What is the difference between wet and dry gangrene?
Wet (also sometimes termed "moist") gangrene is the most dangerous type of gangrene because if it is left untreated, the patient usually develops sepsis and dies within a few hours or days. Wet gangrene results from an untreated (or inadequately treated) infection in the body where the local blood supply has been reduced or stopped by tissue swelling, gas production in tissue, bacterial toxins, or all of these factors in combination. Additionally, conditions that compromise the blood flow such as burns or vascular trauma (for example, a knife wound that cuts off arterial flow) can occur first. Then the locally compromised area becomes infected, which can result in wet gangrene. Wet gangrene is the type that is most commonly thought of when the term gangrene is used. Wet gangrene often produces an oozing fluid or pus, hence the term "wet." Early stages of wet gangrene may include signs of infection, aching pain with swelling, a reddish skin color or blanched appearance if the area is raised above level of the heart, coolness on the skin surface, ulceration, and a crackly sensation when the skin is pressed due to gas in the tissue. These stages may progress rapidly over hours to days.
Dry gangrene, if it does not become infected and progress to wet gangrene, usually does not cause sepsis or cause the patient to die. However, it can result in local tissue death with the tissue eventually being sloughed off. Usually, the progression of dry gangrene is much slower (days to months) than wet gangrene because the vascular compromise slowly develops due to the progression of diseases that can result in local arterial blockage over time. The stages are similar to wet gangrene (see above), except there is no infection, pus, wetness, or crackly-feeling skin because there is no gas production in the uninfected tissue. There are many diseases that may lead to dry gangrene; the most common are diabetes, arteriosclerosis, and tobacco addiction (smoking). Infrequently, dry gangrene can occur quickly, over a few hours to days, when a rapid arterial blockage occurs (for example, an arterial blood clot suddenly occludes a small artery to a toe). Dry gangrene often produces cool, dry, and discolored appendages (sometimes termed "mummified") with no oozing fluid or pus, hence the term "dry."