Invaders of the Creepy-Crawly Kind

Infections from parasites, diseases you usually associate with exotic overseas travel, are on the rise in the US. Here are 3 creatures to steer clear of.

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Every year millions of people in the developing world die from infections caused by infinitesimal invaders known as parasites, something we don’t worry too much about on American soil. But recently, thanks to increasing international travel, these worms have wiggled their way into our lives making us all vulnerable. The United States is fast becoming a fertile breeding ground for these silent, but sometimes, lethal organisms, which are found in water, on land, and in the air.

If you've been on a cruise or travelled to the southern United States and develop these symptoms, talk to your doctor. Most have not been trained in tropical diseases and you may need a blood or stool test to determine if you have been infected. 

Invader Number 1: The Kissing Bug

What It Is

This little sucker gets his nickname from his habit of biting people on the lips – and that’s not even the gross part: afterward it defecates into the bite. Worse still, some of these rude dudes are infected with a parasite that can lead to a very serious disease in humans.

How You Can Get Sick

If the bug infects you with the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite, and it is not treated, you can develop chronic Chagas disease in which your heart muscle, esophagus, and colon can become inflamed and dilated, leading to heart failure and stroke. Though this is a rare occurrence in the United States, the incidence of Chagas disease is increasing. Infected bugs are found in the Southern US, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 300,000 people were infected with the parasite that causes it in 2009.

What to Look Out For

The early (or acute) phase of chronic disease often does not have symptoms, but the chronic phase may cause an irregular heartbeat, an enlarged heart, congestive heart failure, difficulty swallowing, and abdominal pain and constipation.

Invader Number 2: Hookworms

You may have heard of these worms, known as nematodes. They can get under your skin and, left untreated, lead to anemia. Worldwide some 740 million people are infected with them. In the Southern United States they can be found in sand and soil.


How You Can Get Sick

Nematode larvae hang out in contaminated soil until they encounter a host – say – you. Then they penetrate your skin, go for a swim in your bloodstream where they can travel to other areas, such as your lungs, eventually ending up in your small intestine and subsisting off your blood. Over time, someone infected with hookworms can develop anemia and become chronically fatigued.

What to Look Out For

Initial symptoms can include a rash at the infection site. If someone is infected with a large number of worms, it can lead to anemia, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

How You Can Avoid It

Don’t go barefoot in areas with sand or soil that could be contaminated.

Invader Number 3: The Bulinus Snail

Found in freshwater areas, the bulinus snail itself is not harmful, but overseas it can carry a parasite called schistosomiasis, which can cause lots of trouble. You’ve probably heard of the most common problem they cause in the US – swimmer’s itch – but if you are infected internationally with schistosomiasis, it can attack your bladder, liver, lungs, intestine and brain leading to internal organ damage.

How You Can Get Sick

While the snails are minding their own business in the water, parasites infect them, mature to adulthood and are then released back into the water to look for human hosts. When they meet up with you, they burrow into your skin and find their way to your bloodstream, from where they have an all access pass to your vital organs.

How You Can Avoid It

If you are travelling overseas, make sure to read up on whether it is safe to swim or wade in freshwater areas.