Tests used to help diagnose gangrene include:
- Blood tests. A high white blood cell count is often a sign of infection. Other blood tests can be done to check for the presence of specific bacteria and other germs.
- Fluid or tissue culture. Tests can be done to look for bacteria in fluid sample from a skin blister. A sample of tissue can be examined under a microscope for signs of cell death.
- Imaging tests. X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can show the organs, blood vessels and bones. These tests can help show how far gangrene has spread through the body.
- Surgery. Surgery may be done to get a better look inside the body and learn how much tissue is infected.
Tissue that has been damaged by gangrene can't be saved. But treatment is available to help prevent gangrene from getting worse. The faster you get treatment, the better your chance for recovery.
Treatment for gangrene may include one or more of the following:
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy
Medications to treat a bacterial infection (antibiotics) are given by IV or taken by mouth.
Pain medications may be given to relieve discomfort.
Surgery or other procedures
Depending on the type of gangrene and its severity, more than one surgery may be needed. Surgery for gangrene includes:
- Debridement. This type of surgery is done to remove the infected tissue and stop the infection from spreading.
- Vascular surgery. Surgery may be done to repair any damaged or diseased blood vessels to restore blood flow to the infected area.
- Amputation. In severe cases of gangrene, the infected body part — such as a toe, finger, arm or leg — may need to be surgically removed (amputated). You may later be fitted with an artificial limb (prosthesis).
- Skin grafting (reconstructive surgery). Sometimes, surgery is needed to repair damaged skin or to improve the appearance of gangrene-related scars. Such surgery may be done using a skin graft. During a skin graft, the surgeon removes healthy skin from another part of the body and places it over the affected area. A skin graft can be done only if there is enough blood supply to the area.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is done inside a chamber pressurized with pure oxygen. You usually lie on a padded table that slides into a clear plastic tube. The pressure inside the chamber will slowly rise to about 2.5 times regular atmospheric pressure.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy helps the blood carry more oxygen. Oxygen-rich blood slows the growth of bacteria that live in tissue lacking oxygen. It also helps infected wounds heal more easily.
A hyperbaric oxygen therapy session for gangrene usually lasts about 90 minutes. Two to three treatments a day may be needed until the infection clears.
Preparing for your appointment
Call your health care provider right away if you have symptoms of gangrene. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may be told to go to the emergency room or to call 911 or your local emergency number for medical help.
If you have time before you leave home or on the way to the hospital, use the information below to prepare for your visit.
What you can do
- Write down any symptoms you have and how long you've had them Note as many details as possible about when your symptoms first appeared. Include how they may have worsened or spread over time.
- Write down any recent injury or trauma to your skin, including cuts, bites, injections, surgery or possible frostbite. If you've recently used injectable drugs, tell the health care provider.
- Write down important medical information, including any other conditions you have.
- List any medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking. Include their doses.
- Take a family member or friend along. Gangrene is a medical emergency. Take someone with you to help you remember all the information you receive. You'll also want someone who can stay with you if you need immediate treatment.
- Write down questions to ask your health care provider.
For gangrene, some basic questions to ask your health care provider include:
- What's the most likely cause of my symptoms or condition?
- What kinds of tests do I need?
- Do I need to stay in the hospital?
- What treatments do I need?
- How soon will treatment work?
- Will I have a full recovery? If so, how long will recovery take?
- Am I at risk of long-term complications?
Don't hesitate to ask your care provider any additional questions.
What to expect from your doctor
Your health care provider is likely to ask several questions to help determine the diagnosis and treatment. You may be asked:
- What are your symptoms?
- When did the symptoms start?
- How painful is the affected area?
- Do the symptoms seem to be spreading or getting worse?
- Have you had any recent injuries or trauma to your skin, such as cuts, wounds, bites or surgery?
- Have you been in very cold temperatures that made your skin change color or turn numb?
- Do you use injectable drugs, including illegal drugs?
- Have you been diagnosed with any other medical conditions?
- What medications are you taking or have recently taken, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, herbs and supplements?