There are a number of bugs that can find their way inside your body, entering through openings or burrowing beneath the skin. Some even lay eggs and multiply under the skin’s surface. Learn more about these creatures—and how to avoid them.
There is no place like home, and for some insects, that home is you. Humans are warm, safe hosts for a variety of creatures that can burrow into your skin.
Ticks are tiny bugs with eight legs that look similar to a spider with shorter legs and a rounder body. Part of the arachnid family, they can vary in color from brown to red to black, and their size depends on how much they have gorged themselves on their host’s blood. A tick can be as tiny as a pin head when they need to eat, to as large as marble when they have finished feasting on their host.
Ticks are attracted to people and animals, and tend to target warm, out-of-the-way places like armpits and hairy areas where they can feed without being bothered. Many times, you might not even notice a tick bite. What you might notice, though, is the growing tick as it remains attached to you during its meal.
Ticks don’t burrow completely under the skin, but parts of their head can become lodged under the skin as they feed. They will attach to a host for up to 10 days, falling off when they are too full to cling on any longer.
Tick bites are most dangerous not from the bite itself, but from the
- Colorado Tick Fever
- lyme disease
- Powassan disease
- rickettsiosis, such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
- Southern tick-associated rash illness
- tickborne relapsing fever
- rash, possibly with a bullseye pattern
- muscle pain
- joint pain
- skin ulcers
- swollen lymph glands
Ticks live throughout the United States.
Prevention is key when it comes to ticks. Inspect your pet and your own skin after spending time outdoors, use tick repellents, and wear protective clothing.
Human itch mite
The human itch mite (Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis) is a microscopic bug that is one of the few to actually burrow and live beneath human skin. Adult female itch mites burrow under the top layer of skin, where they can continue to live and lay eggs for weeks undetected. They aren’t spread by animals, but by skin-to-skin contact with other infested people or by the skin coming in contact with dirt that infested animals — specifically livestock — come in contact with.
Adult mites are tiny sac-like creatures measuring less than a half-millimeter and can’t usually be seen with the naked eye. What you can see is tiny raised tunnels in the skin from the burrowing mites, or redness from scabies—the disease eventually caused by these mites.
Symptoms can appear days or weeks after infestation begins, and usually begin with itching and a skin rash. They can become severe, with infested people developing raised bumps and even bacterial skin infections from the open sores left by scratching.
Scabies rashes are most often found in skin creases, between fingers, in elbows and armpits, and along the neck or groin. A doctor can usually diagnose a scabies infestation by seeing the rash, but they may also take a skin scraping or extract one of the mites from your skin for confirmation.
Prescription topical medications, strict cleaning, and isolation as the infestation clears are the best remedies for scabies.
The chigoe flea (Tunga penetrans) goes by several names like:
- chigoe flea
- sand flea
Native to Central and South America, chigoe fleas are about 1 millimeter and live below dirt and sand in tropical areas. Both males and females bite humans and animals, but only pregnant females go beneath the skin’s surface. After mating, female chigoe fleas attach to your skin with their mouth, then claw into your skin. They feed and nurture up to 100 eggs beneath the skin’s surface for about 2 weeks, growing to about 1 centimeter before being sloughed off with dead skin cells.
They can be difficult to see, as only the female’s posterior is visible. You likely won’t notice their presence until the pregnant female grows in size.
Swelling, itching, and irritation follow, and you can develop ulcers and bacterial infections at the site. The infection that comes from these bugs is called tungiasis, and can cause problems walking or lead more serious infections like tetanus and gangrene.
The initial burrowing is usually painless. Symptoms, including itching and irritation, usually start to develop as the females become fully developed into the engorged state. Inflammation and ulceration may become severe, and multiple lesions in the feet can lead to difficulty in walking.
Secondary bacterial infections, including tetanus and gangrene, are not uncommon with tungiasis.
- These parasitic flies are sometimes called:
- tumbu flies
- mango flies
- maggot flies
- bot flies
They are native to tropic areas around Africa. Adults live on their own, but lay eggs on human or animal skin, gluing them to the surface with a sticky substance or inserting them directly into wounds or open areas of flesh. As the larvae develop and grow, they burrow into their host’s tissue, living there for up to 10 weeks. As they grow into adults, they resemble small flies and drop to the ground, leaving the host to start its adult cycle.
Infestation by these flies is called myiasis and is detected as a lump under the surface of the skin. Larvae can be seen moving under the skin surface in some cases. The lump can become irritated and infected, and requires medical care.
These flies eat the tissue surrounding them as they grow, and infestations must be surgically removed. Additional treatment depends on the extent of tissue damage the larvae caused.
Some bugs don’t burrow under your skin themselves. Instead, they bite, then inject larvae. Learn more about these unwanted tenants.
Lice primarily live and reproduce on the skin’s surface, attaching to your hair shift. In some cases, the eggs may be burrowed just beneath the skin. Lice are easily transmitted between hosts, and cause itchy rashes. As they bite the skin and feed on their host’s blood, lice can cause irritation, infections, and transmit diseases like typhus.
Loa loa worms
Some deer flies and black flies work with filarial nematodes called loa loa worms to infect their host after a meal. Found in tropical areas, these flies carry the loa loa parasite to a new host, passing it on with a bite. The small loa loa worm enters its new host through the bite, and lives in the tissue just under the skin. It can even enter the blood stream.
Larvae of the loa loa worm have been found in spinal fluids, urine, and sputum. They can cause an infection called loiasis. This infection often comes with no symptoms, but loa loa can sometimes be seen moving beneath the skin or across the surface of the eye. Severe infestations can lead to inflammation of the brain, coma, and even death.
Treatment can be difficult, and ranges from surgical removal of the parasite to the use of strong medications.
Like the deer fly and loa loa worm, the worm-like Onchocerca volvulus parasite is passed to a new host through the bite of an infected black fly. The infection that results from this infestation is called onchocerciasis. It causes itching, rashes, and raised nodules. In more severe cases, it can even cause severe skin damage or blindness.
Now that you know about all the bugs that can burrow into your skin and call it home, the more important topic is how to prevent infestations and get rid of unwanted guests.
Home remedies are generally not effective in treating bugs that burrow into skin or cause infestations on their host. However, for parasites like lice, cleanliness, some household solutions, and manual removal can help clear an infestation.
With ticks and other less invasive bugs, manual removal may also be an option, but you have to be careful to remove the entire bug.
For more invasive bugs and parasites, trying to remove these creatures yourself could cause more problems and even serious infections.
A better solution is prevention through:
- bug repellants
- protective clothing
- prophylactic medications like antiparasitics and antibiotics
There are very few over-the-counter medications that can help with severe infestations of bugs and parasites. In most cases, you will need to seek the help of a medical professional.
There are some exceptions, as in the case of lice. There are a number of over-the-counter products used to treat lice infestations that you can try as a first-line treatment. If lice remains after these treatments, you should seek medical attention.
Bugs that burrow under the skin or share parasites with their host can cause a number of problems. Bacterial infections related to itchy rashes, or painful ulcers and nodules, are one problem. Some infestations can even target your central nervous system, causing systemic illness and even death. Prescription medications like antibiotics and antiparasitics may be used to treat initial infestations. Severe infections will require more intense medical care.
With severe infestations, more in-depth treatment is required. In some cases, bugs that burrow into skin or parasites that make a home inside you may require surgical removal. If the infestation leads to severe damages to tissues or other organs, medical care becomes more complicated and can involve a number of therapies depending on the extent of damage.
While bug or parasite infestations may seem more of a disgusting nuisance than an actual medical problem, you should seek medical attention if a bug bite or mysterious rash leads to:
- rashes that spread or don’t go away
- nodules that grow or have movement below the surface
- trouble breathing
- vision changes
There are many dangerous signs of infections that can come from these creatures, and you might not even realize you have been bitten or infested until later. Rashes or bumps that are painful and seem to get worse with time warrant a trip to a doctor, even if you don’t suspect an infection.