We have plenty of things living on and in us. Most of the organisms that reside on or in us are not only perfectly natural but perfectly healthy as well. From the bacteria and fungi that dwell on our skin to the microflora that call our gut home, most of these creatures actually help us to protect ourselves, to survive, and to perform the basic necessary bodily functions of the human organism.
Occasionally, we’re reminded of the damage that can be done by something growing in our bodies, like when a terrifying flesh-eating microbe decides to eat away at us. Other times, small, unseen organisms can hijack our minds and alter our behaviors and even our perceptions. But beyond the usual pathogens, sometimes the organisms that grow on or in us are actually visible (or at least their effects are). Here are ten cases of infestations that actually took place inside people’s bodies.
Barnacles are crustaceans that inhabit marine waters. Around 850 species of barnacles are largely immobile and don’t do much at all; think of the kind you see attached to the hulls of ships. These barnacles contain an extremely strong adhesive paste that they use, almost like concrete, to attach themselves to things in such a way that it requires tremendous force to remove them. Other species of barnacles are internal parasites that infect other crustaceans and can seriously threaten ocean life from time to time.
A man named Chris Johnson would one day end up seeing a doctor about a strange growth in his hand that had become seriously concerning. Not knowing what the growth was, the doctors took samples, which they tested. They never expected that they would find barnacles growing inside the man’s hand—but that’s exactly what happened. Both the doctors and Johnson himself were terrified.
In another absolutely bonkers case of living things growing inside someone, a Boston man named Ron Sveden was having some severe chest problems in 2010. Already suffering from emphysema, Ron resigned himself to his fate, believing that he had cancer. Once one of his lungs collapsed, though, enough was enough, and Ron went in to see the doctors to diagnose him with the appropriate lung cancer.
But that isn’t what happened. Doctors took the appropriate X-rays and indeed found a growth inside Mr. Sveden’s lung, but it wasn’t a clump of cancerous cells like they were expecting—it was the humble beginnings of a pea plant. Months prior, Ron had been eating, doctors hypothesized, when he must have taken a pea down the wrong tube and into his lung. The pain that ensued was from the pea being lodged inside his lung, but it didn’t stop there. The pea began to sprout and actually grow, infesting the inside of Mr. Sveden’s body.
A very similar and slightly crazier incident hails from Russia in 2009. Yet again, an individual was pained in their chest, specifically their lungs, and something was removed. What exactly was that? The humble beginnings of a growing fir tree, which was apparently 5 centimeters (2 in) long. The doctors who performed the operation said that they were 100-percent certain that a tumor in the man’s lungs was cancer, but when they went to open him up, a sprouting fir tree was what was found inside.
While no one aside from the surgeons and the patient verified the claim, considering the story of Ron Sveden in the United States, it’s very possible the men were telling the truth. Seeds sprout without sunlight, and plants only really need light to photosynthesize once leaves begin to grow.
Next on the list is an extremely unusual case of maggot infestation, one that ended up being most definitely a good thing. Pham Quang Lanh was a 28-year-old laborer working as a guest worker in Malaysia, outside of his native Vietnam, when he an iron bar fell off a building and onto his head in 2015. Fortunately, Lanh survived the injury, at least in the short term, thanks to surgery and a titanium plate that doctors were able to implant into his head.
But the story doesn’t end there. Lanh was in pain, and the site where the plate was inserted was swelling and generally not looking good. However, thinking it only a minor infection, he didn’t seek treatment. His family decided to take a closer look, and that’s when they discovered live maggots eating away at Lanh’s head.
In an unusual twist, while the man did, in fact, have a maggot infestation in his head, he also had a very bad infection—the kind that eats flesh, leading to necrosis of the skin cells, which can ultimately be lethal. But Pham Quang Lanh survived long enough to have the site treated because the maggots were eating away at the necrotic tissue that developed from the infection, which means the maggot infestation ultimately saved the man’s life. Talk about disgusting luck.
Believe it or not, the stroke of luck that Lanh had isn’t exactly unusual. Maggots can be very, very efficient nasty-bacteria-eating machines and can devour infections for our benefit. Not only is this reality, but it’s medicine, as doctors are willing to employ maggots when other options have run out. This almost sounds like some bizarre quack medical practice out of the Middle Ages, one that might have been used to (wrongly) fend off the Black Death, but no, this is current, modern-day medicine.
In 2012, a team of doctors at a hospital turned to maggots for a man named Waclaw Tyszkiewicz, who was suffering badly from an infection in his foot that was quickly spreading up his leg. The infection as such that amputation was the only choice—aside from literally dumping maggots on the infection site; and that’s exactly what they did. Once a week for three weeks, 800 maggots were applied for 36 hours, after which the area was doused in hydrogen peroxide, and guess what: It worked. While Waclaw still lost a toe in the ordeal, he managed to keep everything else and heal up nicely. Thanks to maggots, he was able to keep walking.
Morgellons disease is a baffling and inexplicable mystery to even the most brilliant minds of medical science today. A part of the problem in understanding this unusual skin disease is that different studies have drawn radically different conclusions over time, leading to a lot of confusion pertaining to what’s actually going on with the poor people who suffer from this extremely rare condition. Most of the symptoms are pretty common and shared with other diseases and syndromes, such as depression, fatigue, and skin rashes, but some of them stand out as downright mortifying: People with Morgellons disease begin to feel like insects are crawling inside their skin or like there is movement inside them beneath the skin.
From there, it just gets even more terrifying, as fibers actually begin to appear under the skin. The fibers are long and stringy, often black, and many of them have been tested and turned out to be cotton. Medical science doesn’t know for sure why this happens to some people (mental illness has been blamed), but it does.
Bird mites are tiny, eight-legged, parasitic creatures that live on the blood of warm-blooded hosts—and they also sometimes make their way inside a person and decide to call them home. They sometimes dig into the noses of humans, too.
The most terrifying thing about bird mites is their symptoms, the main one being feeling like insects are crawling underneath your skin, which is to be expected. But bird mite infestation also causes severe psychological anguish as well as the usual depression. Fortunately, such mites can’t complete their life cycle inside human beings alone and thus must travel back into birds (where they come from) in order to do so.
Scabies are awful for anyone to get—tiny mites infect the skin and cause the host organism extreme discomfort. Even worse, by the time a person infected with scabies notices any symptoms, it’s already too late, and they’ve become an infestation, as there is an incubation period of several weeks. Scabies can be treated most times with the simple application of a topical ointment, but sometimes, due to just the nature of these little critters, they can spread like crazy and wreak havoc.
One such instance was something straight out of a Stephen King book or movie. An infestation of scabies went absolutely crazy and even ended up being fatal. The outbreak took place, tragically, in a memory care facility, a place where people are kept when they have impairments such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Between 2013 and 2016, the SouthTowne Memory Care facility in Eugene, Oregon, had an outbreak that it would ultimately be sued for mismanaging, one which infected at least a few dozen people.
The painful, unceasing itching that scabies causes is absolutely mortifying. One 83-year-old woman named Pat Lancaster had left the facility but ultimately ended up dying a few months later. Between the time she left and the time she died, she had gone to the hospital, where doctors were shocked to see her condition so poor, with scabies so deeply embedded. They treated her and were able to remove the external scabies with ointments, but the mites had gone deep inside her, and she ended up dying from them. She was found having scratched massive chunks of skin off in a terrifying fashion. Scabies is no joke—it can kill you and should be taken very seriously. Two others also died in the outbreak.
Did you know that sometimes, cockroaches actually crawl inside people? They do, and the ear is a likely place of entry. When cockroaches are afraid, usually of weather changes or a perceived predator, they hide, sometimes inside your ear hole. They make themselves at home, and even more terrifyingly, sometimes, they’ll choose your ear as a perfect spot to lay their eggs. The fact that they generally can only go forward and not backward means that they probably won’t come out on their own.
In one terrifying situation, a woman from Florida named Katie Holley was sleeping one night in 2018 when she felt something seemingly cold slide into her left ear canal. Attempting to solve the problem and thinking the object was inanimate, she put a Q-tip into her ear and tried to figure out what it was—and that’s when she felt it move. That’s when things got even more awful: She removed the Q-tip to find what appeared to be legs on it.
It would take Katie a full nine days to get every piece of the roach out of her ear. She initially went to the emergency room, where most of the cockroach was removed, but then a week went by, and something just wasn’t quite right with her ear. After an uncomfortable several days, she decided to follow up with her doctor, who looked inside her ear, only to find more of the roach. Her doctor then removed the remainder, and her nightmare was finally over.
Just the name itself sounds absolutely horrifying: “super gonorrhea.” Super gonorrhea is an extremely antibiotic-resistant strain of the regular gonorrhea bacterium which is currently untreatable and spreading around the world slowly but surely. Unlike some other STIs, super gonorrhea is also transmittable through oral sex, making it a bacterium that’s relatively opportunistic.
In what has been called the worst case of super gonorrhea so far, a British man caught the bacterium after sleeping with a woman while on a trip to Southeast Asia in 2018. It was so bad that UK health officials attempted to track down his other sex partners themselves to warn them. Antibiotics failed to treat the disease, leading officials to worry what lies in the future when it comes to combating these critters that might infest and parasitize us. The complete inability to treat this man’s case with the go-to antibiotics was a first.