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.

The 8 Most Expensive Dog Breeds in the World

iStock/ClarkandCompany
iStock/ClarkandCompany

Big dogs, little dogs. Fuzzy, hairless. Tiny ears, floppy ears. Shelter dogs, fancy dogs. We love them all (especially shelter dogs). While Americans shell out an average of about $1675 per year on their dogs, purebred-loving pet parents are willing to pay more than five times that just to acquire the breed they've always dreamed of. Here are eight of the most expensive dog breeds in the world, according to The Dog Digest.

1. LÖWCHEN

Nancy, a 18-month-old Lowchen or Little Lion Dog bitch, poses for a photograph on the second day of Crufts Dog Show at the NEC Arena on March 10, 2017 in Birmingham, England.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

​Löwchens are a petite, long-haired dog that have been a popular breed since the Renaissance, and are even featured prominently in paintings from that period. Nowadays, these "little lions" are extremely rare, pushing their cost to as much as $10,000 in some places around the world.

2. SAMOYED

A Samoyed sits in a flower-filled field
iStock/bruev

This breed's name comes from the Samoyedic peoples of Siberia, who used these fluffy white dogs to herd reindeer and pull sleds for their nomadic groups. The competitive, strong dogs can cost from $8000 to $10,000.

3. TIBETAN MASTIFF

Beautiful Tibetan mastiff on the background of the winter landscape of nature
iStock/~User7565abab_575

The Tibetan Mastiff originated with the ancient nomadic cultures of China, Nepal, and Tibet. Tribes of Himachal Pradesh used this breed as a guard to protect sheep from predators, making them a very protective breed for any owner. The massive dogs can weigh up to 160 pounds and be as tall as 33 inches. The price for this breed is equally as massive, reaching up to $7000.

4. PHARAOH HOUND

Pharaoh hound with a leather collar lying down on a snow in winter
iStock/Eudyptula

The Pharaoh Hound is a Maltese breed whose native name, Kelb tal-Fenek, means "rabbit dog," because they were traditionally used for hunting rabbits. These dogs are highly intelligent as well as athletic. Some bloodlines of this breed can cost owners $6500. We hope the rabbits are worth it!

5. AKITA

Akita dog in grass
iStock/baiajaku

The Akita breed originated from the mountainous regions of northern Japan. An Akita can be categorized as either a Japanese or an American Akita, but all come with a short double-coat similar to that of a Siberian Husky. Certain breeds of the Akita can be priced as high as $4500.

6. AZAWAKH

Azawakh on a white background
iStock/fotojagodka

The West African Azawakh is one of the few breeds of African breeds that is available for purchase in the United States and Canada. This lively dog requires lots of physical activity and moves with a distinct feline gait. They can be identified by their almond eyes, thin bodies, and sandy color. These exotic pooches can be priced from $3000 and up.

7. PERUVIAN INCA ORCHID

Photo of a Peruvian hairless dog
iStock/manx_in_the_world

This pup is a hairless dog with origins in Peruvian pre-Inca cultures. As they're completely hairless with elephant grey skin, the dogs are quite unique in appearance. This breed is priced up to $3000.

8. SALUKI

Portrait of a Elegant Saluki Arabian Hound
iStock/ClarkandCompany

​The Saluki is the Royal Dog of Egypt, meaning it has been man's best friend since the pharaohs roamed the pyramids. Salukis are classed as a sighthound, with long legs and a deep chest. Being tall and lean, the males can weigh up to 60 pounds and measure up to 28 inches. Prices of these pups can reach up to $2500.

5 Ways You Can Help California's Wildfire Victims

Fire Captain Steve Millosovich carries a cage full of cats after a wildfire destroyed homes and land in Paradise, California.
Fire Captain Steve Millosovich carries a cage full of cats after a wildfire destroyed homes and land in Paradise, California.
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

The “Camp Fire” in Northern California’s Butte County has killed more than 40 people and destroyed more than 7100 homes since it started tearing through the region on November 8. Authorities are still investigating the cause, but it has already been labeled the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. At the same time, two other fires—Woolsey and Hill—have been wreaking damage in areas northwest of Los Angeles. Here are some ways you can help the victims.

1. DONATE MONEY

Making a financial contribution to a nonprofit that’s helping wildfire victims is usually the best way of ensuring your donation will be utilized, according to the Center for International Disaster Information. The flexibility of a monetary donation lets disaster responders decide what’s most needed at any given moment. Listed below are a few of the charities and companies accepting donations on behalf of victims, according to The New York Times.

American Red Cross

California Community Foundation’s Wildlife Relief Fund

California Fire Foundation

Enloe Medical Center

Google (Scroll down and click "Yes, Donate")

Humane Society of Ventura County

North Valley Community Foundation

Salvation Army

United Way of Greater Los Angeles

Before determining which charity to choose, it pays to visit Charity Navigator and do a little bit of research to determine which organizations are the most reputable, and how much of your donation will make it directly to the victims.

2. DONATE FOOD

If you’re based in California and want to contribute something other than money, you have a few options. But first, make sure you’re choosing an organization that has the time and resources to coordinate these donations. Los Angeles firefighters, for example, received way more goods (to the tune of 5000 pounds) than they could handle. However, you can still donate non-perishable food items to the Salvation Army Ventura Corps, which is assisting individuals affected by the Woolsey and Hill fires in Southern California. If you happen to see days-old requests for donated goods, just visit that organization's website or social media channels first to make sure they aren't at full capacity.

3. OPEN UP YOUR HOME

Airbnb is encouraging people in the Butte County region to open up their homes to wildfire victims while the figure out longer-term arrangements. From now through November 29, Airbnb users can advertise their homes as free, temporary shelters for aid workers and evacuees, The New York Times reports. Hosts have the chance to communicate with potential guests in advance, and hosts can also determine the length of stay. Hosts in Butte County are welcome to sign up (click here for more info), as well as those living in Ventura, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego counties (click here for info).

4. FOSTER OR ADOPT A PET

Just as humans are being displaced by California's wildfires, so too are their pets. Whether it's because they've been separated from their families or their pet parents are in a temporary living situation that does not allow for animals, hundreds of now-homeless pets are arriving at shelters around California every day. In order to make as much room as possible for more intakes, LA Animal Services posted an urgent call for fosters and adopters on its Facebook page. If you're not in the California area, donating money and supplies to these same shelters is also an option. SPCAla, for example, has set up an Amazon Wish List.

5. VOLUNTEER YOUR TIME AND EXPERTISE

Caring Choices, a nonprofit in Northern California, is currently accepting applications from volunteers with medical backgrounds or other skills—such as data entry, radio communications, or animal care—that are currently needed. (Manual skills, like being able to remove debris, are also listed on the volunteer application form.)

They’ve already received thousands of volunteer applications and aren’t able to sift through them all immediately, but they’re still urging volunteers in the region to apply. “This a marathon and not a sprint,” the organization wrote on its website. “We will need more volunteers in the coming weeks and months as we continue through the disaster response, relief, and recovery efforts.” To apply, fill out this application and email it to aavendano@caring-choices.org. You may also want to consider volunteering with the United Way or The American Red Cross.

Keep checking California Volunteers for additional volunteer opportunities.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER