Cystic acne, leprosy, and even the plague were considered.

By Susan Brickell
Updated January 04, 2019

It's not every day that the skin on your face starts to fall off. But that's exactly what happened to Rachel Star Withers, 33, from South Carolina, as reported by . Talk about a total nightmare.

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In the fall of 2017, Star Withers first noticed that her chest would become bright red and splotchy randomly for moments at a time before going back to normal. Soon after, painful lumps cropped up on her face, opening like giant sores.

"They felt like BBs, tiny metal balls, in my face and ached," Star Withers tells Health. They slowly emerged and would then turn into cyst-like bumps that opened into sores, she adds.

Doctors diagnosed Star Withers' symptoms as cystic and inflammatory acne and prescribed her acne medication for months.

By spring, though, she had developed hives and what looked like an allergic reaction all over her body—which she found odd since she had never experienced any allergies previously. It wasn't until September 2018 (almost a year later) that doctors decided to run some tests after the sores on her face worsened, and chunks of her face began to fall off.

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She was prescribed antibiotics, and after taking them she noticed new pains and that her tongue swelled. Driving home from work one night, her arm started to bother her, she tells us, explaining that it felt like an ice pick stabbing the area where her neck met her shoulder, but deep in the tissue. "The pain made it so I couldn’t hold my arm up," she says. "My tongue felt odd and then I realized my face was going numb on one side."

Her parents took her to the hospital, and a doctor shrugged off her pains as purely "pins and needles," not realizing what was actually happening: Her infection was spreading to her nervous system.

As the infection progressed, the sores turned into what looked liked rotting skin, she says. "It would wash off and [beneath] would be a small deep hole, like as if someone stabbed me with a sewing needle."

Doctors could not pinpoint what kind of illness or disease was causing her skin condition. Leprosy was considered, and at one point, medical professionals even thought it could have been the plague. 

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She finally had blood tests sent to the hospital's Infectious Diseases department, and within hours they ordered Star Withers to return to the hospital immediately. She was placed in isolation and hooked up to an IV drip for eight nights to help rid her body of the infection, which left medical experts scratching their heads.

Doctors are still baffled by her condition, but they think she may have been exposed to the bacteria  or similar while traveling to Asia. This bacteria is typically found in the bowel of humans and animals, as well as in water and soil, and is serious since it's resistant to many antibiotics. Once infected, patients require hospitalization.

Star Withers says she is regaining her energy slowly and is on the path to recovery while accepting the scars that were left behind in the wake of the infection. "I personally think they look pretty wicked," she says. "They are still healing."

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Clearly a very serious infection, we asked dermatologists how a flesh-eating bacteria like this could potentially affect your skin and your health. New York City-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD, told Health that not only can it destroy skin and fat, but can be deadly. "It is a very serious infection that can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated quickly," she says. "It can cause discoloration, peeling, and flakiness and even cause the tissue to die."

Bacterial infections of the skin create a lot of inflammation, causing skin to look red, feel hot and painful, and often times trigger pus-filled bumps, says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a New York-based dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology (FAAD). "Flesh eating bacteria specifically moves very quickly and can turn the skin dark red, then purple, then brown or black," she adds.

To avoid and prevent flesh-eating bacteria infections, be sure to keep open cuts clean and covered, have hand sanitizer on hand when traveling to a foreign country, wash your hands often, and do not go into pools or hot tubs if you have an open wound, says Dr. Jaliman. "Even if it is a small cut, stay out of waters where others have been in." And, remember to moisturize skin liberally, especially when traveling. "Bacteria and other infections like to invade skin when it is dry and cracked," points out Dr. Nazarian.

Many infections come with symptoms like fever, but that's not always true, as in Star Winters' case. Seek help from a medical professional immediately if you think you may have contracted a bacterial infection.

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