The Real Creepy-Crawly Parasites

For Halloween, here are some real ghoulish scares


A bowl of worms, a fake skull, a vampire costume - all scary stuff, but Mother Nature has some scarier ideas.

These are real diseases that real people live with. It's not fake or a joke for them. These are the real horrors.

Some of the real horrors people live with:

Loa loa
This worm squirms in your eye. It's a roundworm (filarial nematode) spread by horsefly bites. It is largely found in West and Central Africa but also in India.

The tiny worms travel through the fat under your skin, causing swelling and itching as they writhe. They can reach up to your eye. A little worm can then be seen squirming beneath the whites of your eyes. It can also spread in the blood.

These worms can be removed directly by surgery. They can be treated with medications and even apheresis - or blood filtering. Between 3 and 13 million are thought infected in Africa, though many don't have symptoms.

Where did the idea of Zombies come from? Some think: Toxoplasmosis. It's a little parasite that might just affect our behavior and thoughts. It's found in a lot of us - up to 60 million carry it in the US, but usually without any symptoms.

The parasite causing Toxoplasmosis is shed from the guts of cats. It can be picked up by other animals, which may pass the infection on to humans when they eat meat. The parasite can also remain in the soil, contaminating unwashed vegetables, or it might enter into the water.

Mice that pick up this infection start acting pretty strange. They lose their fear of cats. Instead of fleeing from the smell of cats, they may be attracted to the smell. A mouse may just scurry up to a cat and become a cat snack. 

The disease can cause confusion in some people - through a serious infection called encephalitis, especially in people who have weakened immune systems.

Some think the disease can also affect those who don't become sick, by affecting our behavior in ways we don't notice, a tiny bit like a mouse.

Cutaneous Larva Migrans

Ever feel like you have the creepy-crawlies under your skin? Well maybe you do. Hookworms that normally infect your cat or dog, or even a cow, might infect you. When this happens, the worm gets a bit lost; it's in the wrong host. These worms, shaped like narrow twisting threads, then start snaking under your skin. Their squirming and traveling under the skin is visible.

​Because they can't cause real infection in humans, the infections go away on their own in a month or two, but can be treated to resolve symptoms more quickly. Infections usually occur in somewhat tropical climates. Infections usually start on the feet (especially when walking barefoot) or on the buttocks (say from sitting in a bathing suit on the beach).

Another ghoulish image: a worm hatching from under our skin. Certain flies have their larvae deposited on our skin, which then burrow into a wound or a mosquito bite.

 A bump may form on our skin and a larva worm may squirm out. This is rare - generally happens only in warm climates (Central America, South America, Africa, the Caribbean). The larvae should be extracted by medical professionals.


A sandfly bite can cause a nose to erode away. The type of Leishmaniasis is called Mucosal or Mucocutaneous Leishmaniasis - found largely in Brazil and surrounding areas. The disease creates mucosal (and skin) lesions that progress over years to ulcerate the nose if not adequately treated.

Other forms of Leishmaniasis cause a total of 1.3 million cases a year in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan,and elsewhere in the Americas. ​

African sleeping sickness

The real sleeping beauty: patients become sleepy and confused with terrible consequences. There are no magical Prince Charmings, just some pretty strong medications - from the CDC.

The parasites causing Sleeping Sickness (Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense and Trypanosoma brucei gambiense) spread in our blood and cross into our brains. The T. b. rhodesiense infection (East African) causes mental deterioration and death within months. T. b. gambiense (West African) initially has a fever and rash, then personality changes in 1-2 years. Those infected will sleep during the day, not at night. Death usually occurs within years.

Work to contain this infection has led to fewer than 10,000 cases a year worldwide.

These are real neglected diseases - not holiday fun for those affected

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