Are you experiencing really strange symptoms after returning from vacation? It’s possible a parasite hitched a ride with you and is now wreaking havoc with your health!
While rare, rat lungworm disease is usually found in individuals either residing or vacationing in Hawaii, Asia, and the Caribbean or Pacific Islands.
Although, according to a report published by the CDC, cases of rat lungworm disease have also cropped up in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, New York, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah between the years of 2011 and 2017.
What the Heck Is Rat Lungworm Disease?
If this is your first time hearing about rat lungworm disease, it might not even sound real to you, but it is. Rat lungworm is a disease caused by a parasitic nematode (roundworm parasite) called Angiostrongylus cantonensis.
The parasite commonly resides in the pulmonary arteries of rats, which is how it got its bizarre name.
The most common hosts for rat lungworm disease are snails, although these parasites can also be found in slugs, freshwater shrimp, land crabs, and frogs.
Documented Cases of Rat Lungworm Disease
Sam Ballard – An Australian Dare
An Australian rugby player by the name of Sam Ballard swallowed a slug on a dare and became infected with the parasite. It infested Ballard’s brain, which put him in a coma for over 400 days and ended up leaving him paralyzed. Ballard is now a quadriplegic who suffers from seizures, breathes and eats through tubes, and requires round-the-clock medical care.
Eliza and Ben – Hawaiian Honeymoon Horror
When 57-year-old Eliza Lape and 64-year-old Ben Manilla took a honeymoon vacation in Hawaii, they both contracted the disease. Eliza described her symptoms as feeling like “somebody was taking a hot knife and just stabbing me in different parts of my body”. Her husband fared even worse. He’s had several operations, two bouts of pneumonia, a blood clot, and kidney problems. Ben spent a month in the Intensive Care Unit and has needed intensive rehabilitation.
How Can Someone Get Rat Lungworm Disease?
Humans can become infected with the parasite if they eat raw or undercooked snails or slugs or fruits and vegetables that contain small slugs or snails, or even pieces of one. Furthermore, ingesting freshwater shrimp, land crabs, and frogs can also transmit the parasite.
What Are the Symptoms?
The most common symptoms of rat lungworm disease are fever, weakness, headache, numbness, and tingling in the body. If the parasitic infection progresses throughout the nervous system, the symptoms can graduate to severe headache, neck stiffness, painful feelings in the skin or extremities, nausea, and vomiting. In some cases, light sensitivity and temporary facial paralysis may occur.
Note: If you have any of these symptoms, see a medical professional immediately, as these could be signs of developing eosinophilic meningitis, which can lead to permanent nervous system damage, coma, or even death. Be sure to tell your care team if you’ve traveled anywhere recently, have consumed any of the above-mentioned foods, or have eaten dirt (a condition known as pica).
Symptoms of rat lungworm usually present within one to three weeks after exposure to the parasite, although the onset varies from case to case, and it can develop as soon as one day or as long as six weeks after initial exposure.
How Is This Condition Diagnosed?
Since there are no readily available blood tests to diagnose rat lungworm, diagnosis is usually made based on a patient’s exposure history and symptoms.
It can also be detected from laboratory findings of a special white blood cell called eosinophils in the CSF (cerebrospinal fluid).
In Hawaii, this condition can be diagnosed with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which is performed by the State Laboratories Division.
How Can I Protect Myself?
The Centers for Disease Control advises that people do not consume raw or undercooked snails or slugs, and to always thoroughly wash fresh produce. It’s also important to take extra precautions when traveling to Hawaii and certain areas outside the United States by avoiding eating raw or undercooked vegetables.
Furthermore, it is advisable to be extra cautious with the consumption of freshwater shrimp, land crabs, prawns, and frogs. Be sure they are boiled and cooked properly before consuming. Moreover, produce should be thoroughly inspected and rinsed (especially leafy greens where snails and slugs can hide) before consuming.
Also, if you’ve handled a slug or snail, wash your hands thoroughly immediately afterward. When handling these creatures, it’s best to wear gloves and to also wash your hands to avoid accidental exposure.
If you’re an avid gardener or landscaper, be sure to minimize the areas where slugs and snails like to hide (mulch, under plant pots, piles of wood). Also, be sure to get rid of rats if they’re a problem in or around your home.
Treatment of Rat Lungworm
According to the Centers for Disease Control, treatments are limited to treating the symptoms of infection (pain medication and drugs that help reduce the body’s reaction to the parasite), rather than trying to eliminate the rat lungworm itself. In the case of severe meningitis, however, patients may be given additional treatment.
Experts say that even without treatment, the parasite will die over time.
However, it is vitally important to see a doctor if you suspect you’ve been exposed to rat lungworm, as it can have devastating health consequences if it’s allowed to grow unchecked inside your body.
Strange and unusual symptoms are quite common, and, unfortunately, many doctors still tend to dismiss them. This is why it’s so important to speak up and be your own advocate. Do all the research you can, connect as many dots as you can, and show up to your next doctor’s appointment armed with knowledge. It just may save your life!