Not For the Squeamish: Update on Sam’s Toe Parasite

Sam_toe_parasiteIn response to multiple requests from loyal followers, I have prepared a detailed report on my episode of Tungiasis. Let the squeamish be forewarned.

Tungiasis is an infestation caused by the female Chigoe flea. Male and female fleas feed on mammalian blood but when it’s time to reproduce the female burrows into the skin. Limited jumping ability dictates that most infestations occur in the feet and lower legs, but if you are foolish enough to lie down in a Ugandan barnyard you are inviting the burrowing to occur anywhere.

Between the dermis and epidermis, the expectant mother sets up shop and her belly swells with eggs. Presumably as a result of cell mediated immunity a fibrous reaction develops around the swelling. The site of the swelling determines the degree of pain or itching it creates.

My own infestation occurred on the tip of the toe and caused no sensation until I spied it after a shower, thought “Hello, who are you??” and enjoyed the overall skin crawling shudder that accompanies the realization one has a critter boring into the skin.

When the flea’s plans are fully realized the abdominal egg sac approaches the surface of the skin and a black orifice develops through which the eggs are expelled to commence their maturation in the barnyard’s feces. I thwarted the process by dragging out my trusty pocket Buck knife and digging at my toe with the conviction of an exorcist, thus delivering hundreds of eggs into some tissue paper and subsequently into the toilet.

Note to son and son-in-law; never travel without your Buck knife.

After “cleaning” the resultant divot I monitored it for several hours and suspected that some organic structure not of my own provenance, was retained in the site. At my age it is hard to get the tip of your toe to within reading glasses range so I discussed it with my local guide, reapplied the blade of my knife and dug until he could tweezer some body parts out. He suggested some petroleum (Vaseline) to suffocate any remaining tissue.

The wound slowly healed over the next 5-6 days.

Walking_Lake_BunyonyiI am sure I picked this little mother up while walking through the Lake Bunyonyi neighborhood in southwestern Uganda. The data is unclear whether closed shoes significantly reduce the incidence of Tungiasis or not, but I was wearing my Keane sandals when heavy rains washed barnyard byproducts over my feet and I noticed the maturing lesion some two weeks later, consistent with the incubation period noted in one resource.

When lesions are multiple, secondarily infected or occur in limbs with compromised circulation then they can be dangerous to the host.

Baby_Elephant_NairobiThe toe is now healed and all seems well enough. However, I wore the same shoes to the Dame Daphne Shedrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi today, my trail shoes having been shredded in Isalo National Park. The baby elephant yard bore a strong, feculent, resemblance to the Bunyonyi barnyards. It makes my skin tingle to think about it.


Photos by Debbie

6 Responses to Not For the Squeamish: Update on Sam’s Toe Parasite

  1. Jon Sawyer March 17, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    Vivid description (as ever!). Making me rethink my decades-long affection for traipsing the world in open sandals. Beginning to think: not prudent.

  2. Minor March 17, 2014 at 4:02 pm #

    This may win the prize for best use of the Buck knife.

  3. Sara McBride June 11, 2019 at 3:17 am #

    Gross! But now I know why we in the Anerican South call “chiggers” that (little itchy bites or sometimes ticks or anything related that it’s commonly held you get from Spanish moss, but often get when young and playing in the dirt, or on camping trips. Often it’s just an outbreak of itchy red spots, which could be anything from flea bites to heat rash, but sometimes it’s newly attached ticks, so the commonly held best method of dealing with the stickers is a thorough soap and hit water wash followed by covering the red spots with clear nail polish or Vaseline kits of people remove ticks with tweezers, a bad idea since that often leaves the head behind, causing infection. When it’s obviously a tick, another method (one my mom used to use on the cats when I was small)is to hold a hot matched as close to the skin as possible without causing a burn, as this makes the suckers haul out in a hurry, and doesn’t cause any further damage (plus Vaseline on a child or cat us liable to get removed too quickly for the beastie to smother or lose enough access to air to leave itself.

    • Barb March 4, 2021 at 12:19 pm #

      Hello.. I am a Retired Registered Nurse.. We were taught in the 1980s to never use a lit match or a hot one to the part of the tick that is sticking out.. The rationale being that if you have anything hot on your rear-end, you are not going to back towards the hear, but burrow deeper.. I remember my Mom using a lit match to remove a tick from my brother and it didn’t work… We were taught in classes that if you use Vaseline and totally cover the tick, it will not be able to breathe and then will back out…I tried the Vaseline method on a tick that I had on the side of my knee, and the thing backed out really quickly.. it hurt just a tiny bit when it let go of my skin, but the Vaseline worked well… Now it is taught to take something like a credit card and slowly scrape the tick from the side and that is supposed to make it come out?? I have not had any more ticks to see if this scraping method works, but I DO know that the Vaseline method will work if the tick is still alive… but I think that the scraping way might be okay if you have a dead tick stuck to your body…
      They are gross and can carry diseases..
      So it’s always a good idea to clean the area really well after the tick is gone and then put antibiotics ointment on the site, and cover it with a bandaid…
      I would maybe try the scraping way for my dogs?? But if you can hold them still until the tick comes out, Vaseline will be okay.. just make sure that you clean the area well.. if they lick a small amount of Vaseline, they are going to be okay…
      And I would probably take them to the Veterinarian if they are covered with more than 20 ticks… because ticks can kill animals… Anyway, just a thought…
      Take care..


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