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Trauma Surg Acute Care Open. 2019 Feb 27;4(1):e000264. doi: 10.1136/tsaco-2018-000264. eCollection 2019.

Chance to cut: defining a negative exploration rate in patients with suspected necrotizing soft tissue infection.

Author information

Department of Surgery, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Torrance, California, USA.
Department of Surgery, University of California, San Francisco East Bay, Oakland, California, USA.
Department of Emergency Medicine, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Torrance, California, USA.
Division of Pediatric Surgery, UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, Los Angeles, California, USA.
David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, USA.



Necrotizing soft tissue infections (NSTI) are aggressive infections associated with significant morbidity and mortality. Despite multiple predictive models for the identification of NSTI, a subset of patients will not have an NSTI at the time of surgical exploration. We hypothesized there is a subset of patients without NSTI who are clinically indistinguishable from those with NSTI. We aimed to characterize the differences between NSTI and non-NSTI patients and describe a negative exploration rate for this disease process.


We conducted a retrospective review of adult patients undergoing surgical exploration for suspected NSTI at our county-funded, academic-affiliated medical center between 2008 and 2015. Patients were identified as having NSTI or not (non-NSTI) based on surgical findings at the initial operation. Pathology reports were reviewed to confirm diagnosis. The NSTI and non-NSTI patients were compared using χ2 test, Fisher's exact test, and Wilcoxon rank-sum test as appropriate. A p value <0.05 was considered significant.


Of 295 patients undergoing operation for suspected NSTI, 232 (79%) were diagnosed with NSTI at the initial operation and 63 (21%) were not. Of these 63 patients, 5 (7.9%) had an abscess and 58 (92%) had cellulitis resulting in a total of 237 patients (80%) with a surgical disease process. Patients with NSTI had higher white cell counts (18.5 vs. 14.9 k/mm3, p=0.02) and glucose levels (244 vs. 114 mg/dL, p<0.0001), but lower sodium values (130 vs. 134 mmol/L, p≤0.0001) and less violaceous skin changes (9.2% vs. 23.8%, p=0.004). Eight patients (14%) initially diagnosed with cellulitis had an NSTI diagnosed on return to the operating room for failure to improve.


Clinical differences between NSTI and non-NSTI patients are subtle. We found a 20% negative exploration rate for suspected NSTI. Close postoperative attention to this cohort is warranted as a small subset may progress.

Level of evidence:

Retrospective cohort study, level III.


debridement; diagnosis; necrotizing fasciitis; necrotizing soft tissue infections; negative exploration

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