Flesh-Burrowing Flea in Florida (Tunga Penetrans)

So imagine a flea that crawls instead of hops that lodges between your toes, burrowing in until only its booty hole sticks out of it’s blood-swollen body. Through it’s booty hole it breathes, mates and ejects strings of sticky eggs. Lovely, right?

This is tunga penetrans, “penetrans” because it’s a penetrating flea. It is supposed to live in South America and Africa, but I promise, one got me in the garden in central Florida. They like warmth and sand, so Florida is fine. It is a serious health problem in poor, unsanitary, sandy places, crippling countless victims in a most disgusting manner. You can find videos of tunga removal on Youtube, but quite frankly, I advise against it, unless you want to test your gag reflex.

I awoke last week at 4:00 AM with intense itching in my foot. I groggily rubbed my foot and the whole thing burned. What the heck? I stumbled into the bathroom and between my big toe and the next toe, was a small red balloon about 2-3 mm in size. What the heck? I knocked it off and there was black stuff in a circular pattern. I need to find that bug! But alas, I could not, so I sprayed the floor with Raid.

I put Benedryl gel anti-itch stuff on the wound and was able to get back to sleep. What was that? But like the doctor said when I was nailed by a blister beetle, “This is Florida, God only knows what bit you.” I got sick, thought I had Covid, but nope, the test was negative. When I felt better my curiosity returned so I did research and found tunga penetrans, which don’t live here, supposedly. The hell you say.

When I saw what nastiness they cause, I rechecked between my toes and found a big blister!! I must pop it! But wait, what about infection? I submerged my foot in alcohol, lanced the blister and white detritus came out (not pus.) EGGS!? I filled the blister hole with Neosporin. I’ve tried to tell an entomologist, but hey, tunga penetrans don’t live in Florida. (I saved some physical evidence.) ONE lived here and I very much doubt it lived here all alone. I sent an email to the CDC, but they’re probably busy with the pandemic.

Bare feet, flipflops and sandals make life easy for tunga penetrans. Deet spray on your feet makes life difficult for them and you want to make life difficult for them. They use animal vectors; around here it’s likely the feral cats, which the old ladies feed and pamper.

I noticed in the Removal Videos that the series of round holes on people’s feet look like the worst nightmare of those who suffer from Trypophobia: “a fear or disgust of closely-packed holes. People who have it feel queasy when looking at surfaces that have small holes gathered close together. For example, the head of a lotus seed pod or the body of a strawberry could trigger discomfort in someone with this phobia.”

I used to think this was a funny thing to be phobic about. Do we retain some ancestral memory of life-threatening conditions that come out later as phobias? I don’t know, but I do know people with typophobia who have never heard of tunga penetrans. What do you think?

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