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Decomposition of bodies

German: Leichenfäulnis

1 Definition

The decomposition of bodies is caused by bacterial enzymes anaerobically breaking down tissues.

2 Details

In contrast to decay, the decomposition of bodies is a reductive process. The starting point are intravital microbial populations, of which the majority are located in the colon. Here the bacteria responsible for decomposition increasingly proliferate, inhibiting proliferation and pushing back other kinds of bacteria. Flagellate clostridia and species of the proteus genus can move intravasally.

3 Signs of decomposition

  • Smell: Anaerobic decomposition processes primarily cause the typical odors.
  • Green rot: The process of bacteria metabolizing the body's hemoglobin involves sulfation which is visible as a green discoloration of the skin. Green rot initially appears on the right lower abdomen because the bacteria leak here first.
  • Gas bloating: Anaerobic processes also cause the development of different gases like CO2, ammonia or hydrogen sulfide. As a result, the internal pressure of the thorax increases which may result in blood or other liquids getting squeezed out of the nose or ears. This is also the reason for the so-called "coffin-birth", which is the postmortem extrusion of a fetus from a dead pregnant woman's body due to increased abdominal pressure.

4 Estimating time of death

The decomposition process allows the pathologist to estimate how long a body has been lying in a certain place. An exact determination of the time of death is impossible because the catabolic processes vary with temperature and surroundings. An approximation can be made using Casper's dictum which states that the decomposition process of one week in air equals two weeks in water or eight weeks in the ground.

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