Dry gangrene affecting the toes as a result of peripheral artery disease
Classification and external resources
Specialty Infectious disease, general surgery
ICD-10 R02, I70.2, E10.2, I73.9
ICD-9-CM 040.0, 785.4
DiseasesDB 19273
MedlinePlus 007218
eMedicine article/217943 article/782709 article/214992 article/438994 article/2028899 article/2051157
Patient UK Gangrene
MeSH D005734

Gangrene (or gangrenous necrosis) is a type of necrosis caused by a critically insufficient blood supply.[1][2] This potentially life-threatening condition may occur after an injury or infection, or in people suffering from any chronic health problem affecting blood circulation.[2] The primary cause of gangrene is reduced blood supply to the affected tissues, which results in cell death.[3] Diabetes and long-term smoking increase the risk of suffering from gangrene.[2][3]

Gangrene is not a communicable disease; it does not spread from person to person, though the infection associated to some forms can. The types of gangrene differ in symptoms, and include dry gangrene, wet gangrene, gas gangrene, internal gangrene, and necrotizing fasciitis.[1][2] Surgical removal of gangrenous tissue and antibiotics are the mainstays of treatment for gangrene. [4] After the gangrene is treated, the underlying cause is addressed. This includes lifestyle modification such as smoking cessation, better control of diabetes, revascularization or, rarely, medical therapy to stop vascular spasm or the production of cold-induced vascular obstruction by cold-precipitated cryoglobulins.


Gangrene is caused by a critically insufficient blood supply (e.g., peripheral vascular disease) or infection.[3][5][6] It is associated with diabetes[7] and long-term tobacco smoking. This condition most commonly occurs in the lower extremities (legs and feet).


Four drawn illustrations on a page, including (top left) a foot with black toes, (top right) a limb with holes in the skin showing yellowed matter beneath, (centre right) the end of a foot with blackened stubs where the toes once were, and (bottom) a foot that is wrinkled and dark, with prominent veins and purple toes.
An illustration showing four different stages of gangrene, including one (Fig. 4 top right) caused by an obstacle to the return of the venous blood due to heart disease.


Dry gangrene is a form of coagulative necrosis that develops in ischemic tissue, where the blood supply is inadequate to keep tissue viable. Dry gangrene is often due to peripheral artery disease, but can be due to acute limb ischemia. The limited oxygen in the ischemic limb limits putrefaction and bacteria fail to survive. The affected part is dry, shrunken and dark reddish-black. The line of separation usually brings about complete separation, with eventual falling off of the gangrenous tissue if it is not removed surgically, a process called autoamputation.

Dry gangrene is the end result of chronic ischemia without infection. If ischemia is detected early, when ischemic wounds rather than gangrene are present, the process can be treated by revascularization (via vascular bypass or angioplasty). However, once gangrene has developed, the affected tissues are not salvageable.

Diabetes mellitus is a risk-factor for peripheral vascular disease and thus for dry gangrene, but also a risk factor for wet gangrene, particularly in patients with poorly controlled blood-sugars, as elevated serum glucose creates a favorable environment for bacterial infection.[8]


Wet, or infected, gangrene is characterized by thriving bacteria and has a poor prognosis (compared to dry gangrene) due to sepsis resulting from the free communication between infected fluid and circulatory fluid. In wet gangrene, the tissue is infected by saprogenic microorganisms (Clostridium perfringens or Bacillus fusiformis, for example), which cause tissue to swell and emit a fetid smell. Wet gangrene usually develops rapidly due to blockage of venous (mainly) and/or arterial blood flow. The affected part is saturated with stagnant blood, which promotes the rapid growth of bacteria. The toxic products formed by bacteria are absorbed, causing systemic manifestation of sepsis and finally death. The affected part is edematous, soft, putrid, rotten, and dark.

Because of the high mortality associated with infected gangrene, an emergency salvage amputation, such as a guillotine amputation, is often needed to limit systemic effects of the infection.[9] Such an amputation can be converted to a formal amputation, such as a below or above knee amputation.[9]


Main article: Gas gangrene

Gas gangrene is a bacterial infection that produces gas within tissues. It can be caused by Clostridium, most commonly alpha toxin-producing C. perfringens, or various nonclostridial species.[6][10] Infection spreads rapidly as the gases produced by bacteria expand and infiltrate healthy tissue in the vicinity. Because of its ability to quickly spread to surrounding tissues, gas gangrene should be treated as a medical emergency.

Gas gangrene is caused by bacterial exotoxin-producing clostridial species, which are mostly found in soil, and other anaerobes such as Bacteroides and anaerobic streptococci. These environmental bacteria may enter the muscle through a wound and subsequently proliferate in necrotic tissue and secrete powerful toxins, which destroy nearby tissue, generating gas at the same time. A gas composition of 5.9% hydrogen, 3.4% carbon dioxide, 74.5% nitrogen, and 16.1% oxygen was reported in one clinical case.[11]

Gas gangrene can cause necrosis, gas production, and sepsis. Progression to toxemia and shock is often very rapid.



Surgical removal of all dead tissue is the mainstay of treatment for gangrene. Often, gangrene is associated with underlying infection, and thus the gangrenous tissue must be debrided to limit the spread of the associated infection. The extent of surgical debridement needed depends on the extent of the gangrene, and may be limited to the removal of a finger, toe, or ear, but in severe cases may involve a limb amputation

It is worth mentioning that dead tissue alone does not require debridement, and in some cases, such as dry gangrene, the affected will fall off or "auto-amputate", making surgical removal not necessary.

As there is often infection associated with gangrene, antibiotics are often a critical component of the treatment of gangrene. The life threatening nature of gangrene necessitates the use of intravenous antibiotics administered in an inpatient setting.

After the gangrene is treated with debridement and antibiotics, the underlying cause of gangrene can be treated. In the case of gangrene due to critical limb ischemia, revascularization can be performed to treat the underlying peripheral artery disease.

Most amputations are performed for ischemic disease of the lower extremity. Of dysvascular amputations, 15–28% of patients undergo contralateral limb amputations within 3 years. Of elderly persons who undergo amputations, 50% survive the first 3 years.[14]

In the United States, 30,000–40,000 amputations are performed annually. An estimated 1.6 million individuals are living with the loss of a limb in 2005; these estimates are expected to more than double to 3.6 million such individuals by 2050.[15] Antibiotics alone are not effective because they may not penetrate infected tissues sufficiently.[16] Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) treatment is used to treat gas gangrene. HBOT increases pressure and oxygen content to allow blood to carry more oxygen to inhibit anaerobic organism growth and reproduction.[17] A regenerative medicine therapy was developed by Dr. Peter DeMarco to treat diabetic gangrene to avoid amputations. Growth factors, hormones, and skin grafts have also been used to accelerate healing for gangrene and other chronic wounds.

Angioplasty should be considered if severe blockage in lower leg vessels (tibial and peroneal artery) leads to gangrene.[18]


American Civil War soldier lies in bed with a gangrenous amputated arm

As early as 1028, fly maggots were commonly used to treat chronic wounds or ulcers to prevent or arrest necrotic spread,[19] as some species of maggots consume only dead flesh, leaving nearby living tissue unaffected. This practice largely died out after the introduction of antibiotics, acetonitrile and enzyme to the range of treatments for wounds. In recent times, however, maggot therapy has regained some credibility and is sometimes employed with great efficacy in cases of chronic tissue necrosis.

John M. Trombold wrote: "Middleton Goldsmith, a surgeon in the Union Army during the American Civil War, meticulously studied hospital gangrene and developed a revolutionary treatment regimen. The cumulative Civil War hospital gangrene mortality was 45 percent. Goldsmith's method, which he applied to over 330 cases, yielded a mortality under 3 percent."[20] Goldsmith advocated the use of debridement and topical and injected bromide solutions on infected wounds to reduce the incidence and virulence of “poisoned miasma.” Copies of his book[21]were issued to Union surgeons to encourage the use of his methods.[22]


The etymology of gangrene derives from the Latin word gangraena and from the Greek gangraina (γάγγραινα), which means "putrefaction of tissues".[23] It has no etymological connection with the word green, despite the affected areas turning black and/or green and/or yellowish brown. It is coincidence that, in Lowland Scots, the words "gang green" (go green) can be said to be an eggcorn for gangrene, as it describes the symptoms of the affliction.

See also


  1. 1 2 Porth, Carol (2007). Essentials of pathophysiology. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-7817-7087-3. Retrieved 2010-06-15.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "Gangrene – Introduction". NHS Health A–Z. NHS. Retrieved 2010-06-15.
  3. 1 2 3 "Gangrene – Causes". NHS Health A–Z. National Health Service (England). Retrieved 2010-06-15.
  4. "Gangrene – Treatment". NHS Health A–Z. National Health Service (England). Retrieved 2010-06-15.
  5. Gardner, AW; Afaq, A (November–December 2008). "Management of lower extremity peripheral arterial disease". Journal of cardiopulmonary rehabilitation and prevention. 28 (6): 349–357. doi:10.1097/HCR.0b013e31818c3b96. PMC 2743684Freely accessible. PMID 19008688.
  6. 1 2 Yang, Z.; Hu, J.; Qu, Y.; Sun, F.; Leng, X.; Li, H.; Zhan, S. (2013). "Interventions for treating gas gangrene (Protocol)". Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (6): Article number: CD010577. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010577.
  7. Korzon-Burakowska, A; Dziemidok, P (December 2011). "Diabetic foot-the need for comprehensive multidisciplinary approach.". Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine. 18 (2): 314–317. PMID 22216805.
  8. Vayvada, H; Demirdover, C; Menderes, A; Karaca, C (August 2013). "Necrotising fasciitis in the central part of the body: diagnosis, management and review of the literature.". International wound journal. 10 (4): 466–72. doi:10.1111/j.1742-481x.2012.01006.x. PMID 22694053.
  9. 1 2 Tisi, PV; Than, MM (8 April 2014). "Type of incision for below knee amputation.". The Cochrane database of systematic reviews. 4: CD003749. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD003749.pub3. PMID 24715679.
  10. Sakurai, J.; Nagahama, M.; Oda, M. (November 2004). "Clostridium perfringens alpha-toxin: characterization and mode of action". Journal of Biochemistry. 136 (5): 569–574. doi:10.1093/jb/mvh161. PMID 15632295.
  11. Chi CH, Chen KW, Huang JJ, Chuang YC, Wu MH (December 1995). "Gas composition in Clostridium septicum gas gangrene". Journal of the Formosan Medical Association. 94 (12): 757–9. PMID 8541740.
  12. Levenson, RB; Singh, AK; Novelline, RA (March–April 2008). "Fournier gangrene: role of imaging". Radiographics. 28 (2): 519–528. doi:10.1148/rg.282075048. PMID 18349455.
  13. Warkentin, TE (August 2010). "Agents for the treatment of heparin-induced thrombocytopenia". Hematology/Oncology clinics of North America. 24 (4): 755–775. doi:10.1016/j.hoc.2010.05.009. PMID 20659659.
  14. Amputations of the Lower Extremity at eMedicine
  15. Ziegler-Graham K, MacKenzie EJ, Ephraim PL, Travison TG, Brookmeyer R (March 2008). "Estimating the prevalence of limb loss in the United States: 2005 to 2050". Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 89 (3): 422–9. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2007.11.005. PMID 18295618.
  16. Lipsky BA (December 1999). "Evidence-based antibiotic therapy of diabetic foot infections". FEMS Immunol. Med. Microbiol. 26 (3-4): 267–76. doi:10.1016/s0928-8244(99)00143-1. PMID 10575138.
  17. Slack WK (May 1976). "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy in anaerobic infections: gas gangrene". Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. 69 (5): 326–7. PMC 1864235Freely accessible. PMID 1273078.
  18. "Angioplasty and stent placement - peripheral arteries". Retrieved July 24, 2013.
  19. Shi E. and Shofler D., Maggot debridement therapy: a systematic review, British Journal of Community Nursing, 19:Sup12, S6-S13, 2014. PMID 25478859, doi:10.12968/bjcn.2014.19.Sup12.S6. Accessed 2016-11-07.
  20. Gangrene therapy and antisepsis before Lister: the Civil War contributions of Middleton Goldsmith of Louisville. PubMed - NCBI
  21. A report on hospital gangrene, erysipelas and pyaemia. 1863
  22. Watson, Dr. Scott. "Hospital Gangrene During The Civil War - Civil War Medicine". Retrieved 2014-04-15.
  23. Liddell & Scott's Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1963 edition

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