Gangrene is a serious condition in which a loss of blood supply causes tissue to die. It can affect any part of the body but typically starts in the toes, feet, fingers and hands. Gangrene can occur as a result of an injury, infection or a long-term condition that affects blood circulation.
Anyone can develop gangrene, particularly after a serious injury, but there are certain groups of people who are more at risk. These include people with long-term conditions that can affect the blood vessels, such as:
- Diabetes – a condition that causes a person's blood sugar level to become too high
- Atherosclerosis – where arteries narrow and become clogged with a fatty substance known as plaque
- Peripheral arterial disease – where a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries restricts blood supply to leg muscles
- Raynaud's Condition – where blood vessels in certain parts of the body, usually the fingers or toes, react abnormally to cold temperatures
- Redness and swelling in the affected area
- Either a loss of sensation or severe pain in the affected area
- Sores or blisters in the affected area that bleed or produce a foul-smelling pus
In some cases, the affected limb may feel heavy and pressing the skin may produce a crackling sound. These symptoms are caused by a build-up of gas under the skin.
Treatment options for gangrene include:
- Surgery to remove damaged tissue (known as debridement)
- Antibiotics to treat any underlying infection
- In more severe cases it may be necessary to amputate the affected body part.
Many cases of gangrene can be prevented. For example, if you have diabetes, atherosclerosis and/or peripheral arterial disease, it’s important to have regular check-ups to assess the state of your feet and report any problems to your GP as soon as possible. A low-fat diet, regular exercise and, if you smoke, quitting smoking will also improve your blood supply.