What is Putrefaction?

Putrefaction is the decay of the organic matter by the action of microorganisms resulting in the production of a foul smell. It occurs between 10 to 20 days of the death of an organism. It is the fifth stage of death following pallor mortis, algor mortis, rigor mortis and livor mortis.

Putrefaction involves the decomposition of proteins, breakdown of cohesiveness between the tissues, and liquefaction of most organs. The body is decomposed by the action of putrefying bacteria and fungi which releases certain gases that infiltrate and deteriorates the body tissues and organs. Putrefying bacteria play a major role in recycling nitrogen from the dead organism.

The time taken for putrefaction depends upon various factors such as temperature, moisture, light, age, cause of death, etc.

Process of Putrefaction

All the organic tissues are composed of chemical energy. When it is not maintained by the constant biochemical maintenance, it begins to hydrolyse. The anaerobic bacteria in the digestive tract of humans start digesting the proteins of the body. This weakens the tissues of the body. With the further breakdown of proteins, certain gases and organic compounds are excreted by the bacteria which emit a foul smell that of the rotten flesh.

During this process, the skin tissues of the body rupture releasing the bacterial gas. With the continued process of putrefaction, the body finally reaches to a stage known as skeletonization where only the skeleton is left.

Also read: Rigor Mortis

Factors Affecting Putrefaction

Various factors affecting putrefaction are as follows:

External Factors


The rate of putrefaction increases with the increase in temperature. The optimum temperature assisting in the process of putrefaction is 21℃ to 38℃. The process stops below 0℃ or above 48℃.


If a body is submerged in water or is not exposed to air, the putrefaction process slows down. Moisture and air help in the development of microbes hence speeding up degradation.


Loose fitting clothes help to retain body heat and speed the putrefaction process. Tight clothes reduce the blood supply to the tissues. The bacteria are also devoid of any nutrients to feed on.


Light inhibits the putrefaction process. The insects prefer to lay eggs in the dark areas. Therefore, the areas exposed to light decay slowly compared to the areas exposed to dark.

Internal Factors


The body of a person who died at a young age putrifies more quickly than the one who died at an older age. Even the foetuses and the infants putrefy slowly. This is because they are sterile.

Body Condition

A fat body putrefies more quickly than the lean body. This is because the fat body retains more heat and carries more fluids in the tissues.

Cause of Death

The bodies of people who die from infectious diseases putrefy faster than those who died from accidents or violence.

External Injuries

The injuries on the body before death or during postmortem are more prone to bacterial invasions and hence would accelerate the putrefaction process.

Also read: Suspended Animation

The rate of putrefaction is the maximum in air, followed by soil, earth and water. Refrigeration of the body retards the process. The rate increases in the tropical climates. The body starts showing a greenish discolouration of skin within 12-24 hours when exposed to air. The foremost internal sign of putrefaction is green discolouration below the surface of the liver.

The process of putrefaction can be delayed by using carbolic acid, arsenic, strychnine, and zinc chloride in various ways based on their chemical makeup.

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