5 of the Worst Parasites You Can Get—And How to Avoid Them

John Kucharski, USDA // Public Domain
John Kucharski, USDA // Public Domain

No matter who you are, or where you live, you have, at some point in your life, served as the host to a parasite—“any organism that has a relationship with another organism where the first one gets a benefit and the other pays a cost,” Dan Riskin, biologist and expert on the Animal Planet series Monsters Inside Me, tells Mental Floss. “These relationships can be very short—like a mosquito [biting] you and then taking off—or they can last for decades, or your whole life.” 

Ahead of the new season of Monsters Inside Me, which premieres on October 15, we asked Riskin to come up with a list of five parasites you really don’t want to host. When making his picks, Riskin went for the most common and the least common, then filled in with different parasites in between. He wasn’t lacking for creatures to choose from; more than half of the animal kingdom, he says, consists of parasites, which have been “hugely influential in the history of humankind.” Read on to be terrified—and amazed.

1. NEW WORLD SCREWWORM (COCHLIOMYIA HOMINIVORAX)

This nasty little parasite (above) made news in the U.S. last year when it infected a herd of rare Key Deer in the Florida Keys. (That outbreak, thankfully, is over.) These creepy crawlies can infect humans, too—and one such case is featured on the new season of Monsters Inside Me. “This family went to Colombia to volunteer at an orphanage,” Riskin explains. Near the end of the trip, the daughter had gone to a water park and came back with a sore on the side of her head.

“The next day, when they were supposed to fly home, the feces hit the fan,” Riskin says. The sore became incredibly painful and started pussing, and the family had to decide: Should they stay in Colombia or go home? Ultimately, they got on the plane. Once back in the States, they took their daughter to the ER, where she was given a haircut that allowed doctors to see the “mobile larvae,” a.k.a. maggots, in her head.

A female Cochliomyia hominivorax fly had landed on the girl’s head and deposited its eggs in a lesion on her scalp; the eggs soon hatched into nearly 2-centimeter-long maggots that began chomping away. Unlike other parasitic maggots—like botflies, for example—the New World Screwworm does not stay put. These maggots were burrowing into the girl’s skull. “If they hadn’t gotten to it, these things would’ve migrated right down sort of towards her face and out her eyeballs or who knows what,” Riskin says. Thankfully, doctors were able to remove the maggots using a combination of petroleum jelly and bacon therapy (basically, luring the creepy critters out with the smell of bacon and the threat of suffocation).

How to Avoid It: Wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts, applying DEET-based repellents, and sleeping under a mosquito net are your best methods of defense. If you suspect you might be hosting some screwworms, “seek medical attention immediately,” Riskin advises.

2. MALARIA

The malaria parasite.
iStock

According to the CDC, there were 212 million cases of malaria in 2015; 429,000 deaths were caused by the parasite. “You can get it almost anywhere tropical,” Riskin says. “All it takes is a mosquito bite.”

Mosquitos don’t hatch carrying malaria; the bugs pick it up from an infected person. Once inside the mosquito, the malaria parasite takes up residence in the insect’s salivary glands. “When the mosquito bites somebody else, it squirts a little bit of spit into them to help keep the blood flowing—that’s what causes an itching mosquito bite; it’s a reaction to that spit—but they can also be spitting these parasites into the next person,” Riskin says.

In humans, the parasites hang out in cells in the liver, then make their way to red blood cells, which they make explode, spreading more parasites that invade more blood cells. Anyone can get malaria, and people who contract it will experience fever and chills. “It just wreaks havoc on your body,” Riskin says.

The disease is potentially fatal; those who contract malaria and survive might relapse because some species of the parasite can lie dormant in the liver.

How to Avoid It: If you’re going to a country with malaria, consider taking preventative drugs. Otherwise, wear long pants and long sleeves, use DEET-based insect repellents, and sleep under a mosquito net when traveling in the tropics.

3. BRAIN-EATING AMOEBA (NAEGLERIA FOWLERI)

Technically, this amoeba—which can be found in warm, untreated fresh water—isn’t a parasite. “Normally, it’s totally harmless, doing its own thing in the mud, eating whatever it finds there, going about its business, not bugging anybody,” Riskin says. That all changes when a person goes water skiing and gets water harboring N. fowleri violently shoved up their nose.

Now in a new environment, the amoeba resumes eating whatever it can find in the nose. “It makes its way up that olfactory nerve, reproducing and eating, until it hits the brain,” Riskin says. “And once it’s in the brain, it’s game over for the kid that had it shoved up his nose.”

Typically, a victim will begin to show symptoms—which include fever, headache, and vomiting—around five days after infection (although symptoms can appear as early as one day after infection or as late as nine), and will usually die about five days after that. The death rate associated with infection by N. fowleri in the U.S. is 97.2 percent.

That said, getting a brain-eating amoeba is very, very rare: There were 40 infections reported in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016, a rate of four cases per year. (The CDC reports that “36 people were infected by recreational water, 3 people were infected after performing nasal irrigation using contaminated tap water, and 1 person was infected by contaminated tap water used on a backyard slip-n-slide.”) That gives you odds of about 1 in 70 million of contracting a brain-eating amoeba.

How to Avoid It: Basically, just keep water from slamming up your nose. If you plan on engaging in an activity like water skiing during the summer months, “you could wear a nose plug,” Riskin says. “But this is so rare, that might be overkill.”

4. LUNG FLUKES A.K.A. PARAGONIMUS

An adult Paragonimus westermani lung fluke.
CDC, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Humans may find themselves hosting these coffee bean-sized parasites if they’ve eaten raw or undercooked shellfish. As the crab gets digested, the lung fluke larvae are released, and they “move through your body and go all over the place,” Riskin says. Typically, they tear through the abdominal wall and diaphragm to get into the lungs.

People infected with lung flukes may experience abdominal pain and a fever; eventually, they’ll begin to cough up blood laden with eggs. The blood is either spat out or swallowed, allowing eggs to pass in the stool (and, if a host is in water while defecating, the life cycle will continue).

“Our bodies are built to protect us from the environment,” Riskin says, but eating makes us vulnerable. “It’s like if you had a fortress with big stone walls all around it—you still have to get food to the people who live in the fortress. And so, every once in a while, you have to open the gate and let all these ox carts come in and then close the gate. And then, you’ve got to hope that there’s no Trojan horse.”

Untreated, lung flukes can live in the body for 20 years, according to the CDC. Thankfully, once an infection is identified, medication can wipe the infection out.

How to Avoid It: This one’s easy—just don’t eat raw or undercooked shellfish.

5. ELEPHANTIASIS A.K.A. LYMPHATIC FILARIASIS

An elderly man suffering from elephantiasis; one of his legs is much bigger than the other.
NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

This condition is caused by several species of roundworms; like malaria, these roundworms thrive in the tropics and are transmitted by mosquito. Once in your body, the roundworms set up shop in your lymphatic vessels—small, one-way tubes in your body that drain liquid away from tissues—and can live there for decades. “They’re cloaked like a Klingon bird of prey,” Riskin says. “The immune system doesn’t even know they’re there.” At least, not until the worms die.

“Once they’re dead, the cloaking mechanism doesn’t work anymore,” Riskin explains. Then your body’s like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got an invader.’” Your body sends white blood cells to the site where the bodies of the roundworms have piled up. The problem is, their bodies have clogged the very vessels meant to drain the liquid away, causing limbs to swell. “It gets more swollen, and the body sends more fluid, and that area gets puffier,” Riskin says. “This just keeps happening, and there’s no way to drain. The draining system is busted.”

The parasite infected 120 million people in 2000, according to the World Health Organization; 40 million people were disfigured and incapacitated by it. While medications have little effect on adult roundworms, there are drugs to help and prevent transmissions to others: In 2015, the scientists who developed a treatment that could prevent infections for around a year won the Nobel Prize for Medicine (alongside another researcher who developed a novel malaria therapy).

How to Avoid It: This mainly affects people in Africa and Asia, so if you’re traveling there, wear long-sleeve shirts and pants, liberally apply insect repellent, and sleep under a mosquito net.

A new season of Monsters Inside Me begins October 15 at 9 p.m. EST on Animal Planet.

Photographer's Up-Close Images of Animal Eyes Will Have You Seeing Wildlife in a Whole New Way

A parrot eye
A parrot eye
Suren Manvelyan

Few people ever get close enough to a hippo, hyena, or crocodile to snap a photo of one, let alone get a detailed shot of their eyes. Yet that is exactly what theoretical physicist-turned-photographer Suren Manvelyan, of Armenia, has done. His macro photography series of animal eyes, spotted by My Modern Met, offers a rare look at the animal world, amplified.

Some of Manvelyan's eye photos—like that of the camel, which has three eyelids—look like strange landscapes on some distant, alien planet. The smallest details have been captured in his photos, from the kaleidoscopic irises of the chinchilla and chimpanzee to the shimmery edges of a raven's eye. If the photos weren't labeled, it might be difficult to tell what you were looking at.

"It is very beautiful and astounding," Manvelyan told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "The surface resembles the surface of other planets, with craters, rivers, and valleys. It looks like something from another world. Every time I photograph the eye, I feel myself traveling through the cosmos."

Manvelyan keeps his photography techniques secret, but he says he sometimes spends an hour with an animal just waiting to capture the right moment. To date, he has photographed both domestic animals (like a husky dog and Siamese cat) as well as exotic ones (including a variety of tropical birds and lizards). Check out some of his shots below, and visit his website to see more photos from this series.

Eye of a caiman lizard
A caiman lizard's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A camel's eye
A camel's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A chinchilla eye
A chinchilla's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A raven's eye
A raven's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A husky dog's eye
A husky dog's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A horse eye
A horse eye
Suren Manvelyan

A chimpanzee eye
Eye of a chimpanzee
Suren Manvelyan

A tokay gecko's eye
A tokay gecko's eye
Suren Manvelyan

[h/t My Modern Met]

11 Lesser-Known Animal Phobias

iStock.com/Scacciamosche
iStock.com/Scacciamosche

He’s dealt with elaborate booby traps, KGB agents, and a face-melting artifact, but to Indiana Jones, nothing’s more unsettling than snakes. Many people can relate. Ophidiophobia—or “the persistent and irrational fear of snakes”—affects roughly 1 to 5 percent of the global population. So does the clinical fear of spiders, also known as arachnophobia. But did you know that some people feel just as uncomfortable around chickens? From puppy-induced panic to equine terror, here are 11 lesser-known animal phobias.

1. Lepidopterophobia

Academy Award-winner Nicole Kidman is unfazed by spiders or snakes, but she can’t escape her lepidopterophobia, or fear of butterflies. As a young girl, the Australian actress once scaled a fence just so she could avoid a butterfly perched nearby. “I jump out of planes, I could be covered in cockroaches, I do all sorts of things,” Kidman once said, “but I just don’t like the feel of butterflies’ bodies.” (The Independent reported that she tried to break her phobia by spending time in a museum butterfly cage. “It didn’t work,” the actress said.) Kidman and her fellow lepidopterophobes may refuse to leave windows open in the summertime, lest a stray monarch come fluttering into their home.

2. Batrachophobia

A giant river toad
iStock.com/reptiles4all

No, frogs can’t give you warts. That urban legend—and others like it—may explain some cases of batrachophobia, a deep-seated fear of amphibians, including frogs, toads, and salamanders. It’s thought that the condition might also be linked to an overarching disdain for slimy things. By the way, if you specifically don’t like toads, then you could have a case of what’s known as bufonophobia.

3. Entomophobia

Entomophobia is a family of fears related to insects that includes lepidopterophobia, the previously mentioned butterfly-related dread. Another phobia within this group is isopterophobia, the fear of wood-eating insects like termites. Then we have myrmecophobia (the fear of ants) and apiphobia (the fear of bees or bee stings). Of course we can’t leave out katsaridaphobia, or the debilitating fear of cockroaches. “Cockroaches tap into this sort of evolutionary aversion we have to greasy, smelly, slimy things,” Jeff Lockwood, an author and professor of natural sciences at the University of Wyoming, told the BBC. “Plus, they’re defiant little bastards.”

Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí was terrified of grasshoppers. “I am 37 years old,” he wrote in 1941, “and the fright which grasshoppers cause me has not diminished since adolescence ... If possible, I would say it has become greater.” He went on to say that if a grasshopper ever landed on him while he was standing “on the edge of a precipice,” he’d instinctively jump to his death.

4. Ornithophobia

Traumatic childhood experiences involving birds—like, say, getting chased by a goose—can give birth to a lifelong fear of feathered critters. For Lucille Ball, they always reminded her of her father's untimely death when she was just a toddler: As her mother was delivering the horrible news, a couple of sparrows gathered by the kitchen windowsill.

“I’ve been superstitious about birds ever since,” Ball wrote in her autobiography. “I don’t have a thing about live birds, but pictures of birds get me. I won’t buy anything with a print of a bird, and I won’t stay in a hotel room with bird pictures or any bird wallpaper.”

5. Ailurophobia

Tabby cat against a gray background
iStock.com/Sergeeva

Lucy van Pelt (sort of) mentions ailurophobia in A Charlie Brown Christmas, although she bungles the nomenclature and tells Charlie Brown, "If you’re afraid of cats, you have ailurophasia." (The -phasia suffix generally refers to speech disorders, such as aphasia.) That being said, the fear of cats is a phenomenon that goes by many names, including gatophobia and felinophobia.

Rumor has it that Napoleon Bonaparte and lots of other famous conquerors were terrified of kitties. In Bonaparte’s case, the allegations are probably false; according to historian Katharine MacDonogh, “No record exists of Napoleon either liking or hating cats.” She thinks this myth reflects the long-standing cultural belief that our feline friends wield supernatural insights. “Cats have been endowed with a magical ability to detect the overweening ambitions of dictators, many of whom have consequently been accused of ailurophobia on the flimsiest evidence,” MacDonogh wrote in her book Reigning Cats And Dogs: A History of Pets At Court Since The Renaissance.

6. Alektorophobia

Chickens, hens, and roosters put alektorophobes on edge. A rare type of ornithophobia, this fowl-based fear is no laughing matter. One 2018 case study reported on a 32-year-old man who would experience heart palpitations, a sudden dryness of the mouth, and uncomfortable feelings in his chest upon seeing a neighbor’s hen. It was ultimately determined that the man's phobia was the result of a frightening childhood encounter he’d had with a rooster.

7. Ostraconophobia

“I have a lobster phobia, I don’t know why. I just don’t like them,” NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin told the press in 2017. “I cannot eat dinner if someone beside me is eating lobster.” The admission came just after Hamlin had won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Why did that matter? Because the event took place at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where race-winners are customarily rewarded with giant, live lobsters. But when somebody approached Hamlin with a 44-pounder, he tried to flee the stage. Ostraconophobia, or fear of shellfish, can also manifest itself as a fear of crabs or oysters. The majority of people who deal with this phobia develop it after getting sick from the shellfish that makes them feel uneasy.

8. Ichthyophobia

Piranha fish on black background
iStock.com/bluepeter

Ichthyophobia is a bit of an umbrella term that covers an irrational disdain of fish in a variety of situations. It can refer to the fear of being around live fish, the fear of eating dead ones, or the fear of touching them. A common version of that first anxiety is galeophobia, the widespread fear of sharks. And then there are those who are disturbed (and sometimes even physically sickened) by the sight or smell of fishy entrees; these ichthyophobes may take pains to avoid supermarkets with large seafood aisles.

9. Musophobia

Among the British adults who participated in a 2017 phobia survey, more than 25 percent reported that they were afraid of mice. By comparison, only 24 percent said they dreaded sharp needles or airplanes. In addition to disliking mice, musophobes are often afraid of other rodents, such as hamsters and rats.

10. Equinophobia

Sigmund Freud once wrote a case study on a boy who was terrified of horses. At age 4, Herbert Graf—referred to as “Little Hans” in the paper—had seen an overloaded work horse crumble to the ground in a heap. Following the traumatic incident, Hans became easily spooked while in the presence of horses; just the sound of clopping hooves was enough to trigger his anxiety. As a result, Hans often refused to leave the house.

Little Hans eventually overcame his fears, but equinophobia is still with us today. Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry developed it after being bitten by a pony at a petting zoo when he was a child. Unfortunately for Berry, one of the Chiefs’s mascots is a live pinto horse named Warpaint. As former teammate Derrick Johnson told NFL Films, “He’s always watching for the horse, making sure the horse doesn’t look at him or do something crazy.” Berry has taken steps to overcome his horse phobia, though; in fact, he has even worked up the courage to (briefly) pet Warpaint.

11. Cynophobia

Pug wrapped in a pink blanket
iStock.com/Alexandr Zhenzhirov

If you’re afraid of snakes, at least you’ll (probably) never have to worry about some coworker bringing his pet anaconda into the office. Cynophobes aren’t so lucky. Defined as the “fear of dogs,” cynophobia is an especially challenging animal phobia to have because, well, puppers are everywhere. Cynophobic people may go out of their way to avoid parks and tend to feel uncomfortable in neighborhoods where loud pooches reside.

As with ornithophobia, the fear of canines often stems from a traumatic childhood event. Therapists have found that, for many patients, the best way to overcome this aversion is through controlled exposure; spending quality time with a well-trained dog under a supervisor’s watchful eye can work wonders.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER