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Rat lungworm might sound like something out of a dystopian novel like “Hunger Games,” but this potentially deadly parasite is real—and it seems to be on the move.
While normally quite rare, a new study has found that the rat lungworm parasite is spreading. While traditionally only found in very warm climates (such as Hawaii and southern Florida), researchers have just found that the parasite is thriving in five northern Florida counties.
“The parasite is here in Florida and is something that needs to be taken seriously,” lead study author Heather Stockdale Walden says. “The reality is that it is probably in more counties than we found it in, and it is also probably more prevalent in the southeastern U.S. than we think. The ability for this historically subtropical nematode to thrive in a more temperate climate is alarming.”
Healthcare officials are urging people to practice precautions, especially those who live in states such as Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Hawaii.
What Is Rat Lungworm Disease?
Rat lungworm disease is caused by a parasite that is carried by rats and snails. The parasitic worm invades the brain and spinal cord, causing symptoms like nausea, vomiting, fever, stiff neck and even paralysis of the face and limbs. Although rare, in severe cases it can even lead to death.
Symptoms begin about one to three weeks after a person is exposed to the parasite, and they can last for a few months. This past April, honeymooners in Hawaii ended up spending extensive amounts of time in the hospital following their dream vacation. Shortly after returning home from their honeymoon, they both begin experiencing severe pain.
“My symptoms started growing to feeling like somebody was taking a hot knife and just stabbing me in different parts of my body,” newlywed Eliza Lape told CBS.
In pets, symptoms are a bit harder to identify. The signs of lungworm in animals can be confused with other illnesses, and could include weight loss, breathing difficulties, coughing up blood, lethargy, persistent bleeding, general sickness, circling, stomach and back pain, poor appetite, vomiting and diarrhea, according to The Kennel Club.
In some cases, rat lungworm disease can lead to sudden death in dogs, whereas in other cases, the symptoms can be quite mild and go completely unnoticed by owners.
How Can You Protect Yourself And Your Loved Ones?
First, it’s important to make sure that your children do not pick up and play with snails. Tell your little ones that snails should be left alone because they carry lots of germs, and keep your pets away from these critters, too. If you live near a pond or walk with your dog near a creek, make sure that they don’t eat snails from the water or mess with these slimy creatures. (And, it should go without saying, but just in case: Don’t let your kids or pets play with rats, either!)
Second, you must make sure to wash your produce thoroughly. It’s so easy for a tiny snail to hijack a ride in a tub of lettuce, and recent news stories show that everything from scorpions to bats can hide in your bag of greens. In fact, it’s possible that the Hawaii honeymooners contracted rat lungworm disease from ordering a salad while on vacation.
Third, be careful about the potted plants you bring into your home. While rat lungworm disease has only been found in southern states, it’s possible for these small snails to make a nice home in potted plants, so if you buy flowers that come from Florida, you could be bringing home more than a beautiful plant.
If you live in southern states like Florida, Louisiana, Texas or Hawaii, make sure to wear gloves while you garden. There are also many natural ways to keep snails away from your garden, including crushed eggshells, beer traps, and mint leaves.
Fourth, remember that rat lungworm disease is still very uncommon. There is no need to panic, especially if you exercise precaution. As long as you wash your produce thoroughly, and you keep your kids and pets away from snail hangouts, you should have nothing to fear. This is especially true if you live in the Midwest or northern states, as there have been no known rat lungworm cases reported in these cooler areas.
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Finally, if you have symptoms that you believe are similar to those associated with rat lungworm disease, talk to your doctor, especially if you live in or have recently vacationed in one of these warmer states.
h/t: Good Housekeeping