Skin parasites are small black bugs that burrow under your skin and cause itching and other uncomfortable symptoms. Sometimes the bugs are so small that they can only be seen under a microscope. And while these tiny bugs are usually black, the color can vary and can even be hard to distinguish because of their size.
Signs of infection are usually visible on the skin's surface as red lines or raised bumps. For parasites to live and thrive, they must have a host. Parasites depend on their hosts for food and protection. Animals and humans both host parasitic life.
Common Skin Parasites
Several types of parasites can infest human skin - some more often than others. Here are some of the more common culprits and images of what they might look like if they make your body their host.
These tiny bugs live by sucking blood from their hosts. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the three main types of lice are head, body, and pubic lice. Head lice reproduce and spread quickly. When healthy people come in close contact with someone carrying these itchy passengers, this parasite can spread to them and multiply. The CDC reports that head lice are most commonly seen in preschool and elementary children.
The CDC also states that body lice are not common to those who have access to regular bathing and laundering of bedding and clothing. However, it can spread rapidly in crowded living conditions where standard hygiene is difficult to maintain. Some examples are victims of natural disasters or war, those experiencing homelessness, and displaced people. While in most cases, body lice only cause itching, they can also transmit more serious diseases such as typhus.
Pubic lice (or crabs) prefer the genital areas but are not limited to these regions. This type of lice is most commonly spread through sexual contact.
Lice make the host's skin itch, bringing the blood up to the surface for an easy snack. Lice treatment includes:
- Over-the-counter shampoos
- Ivermectin prescribed by a healthcare provider for resistant lice
- Removal of visible lice and eggs from the scalp, hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes
To prevent lice from coming back, soak combs and brushes in hot water with the treatment shampoo and wash all hats, scarves, bedding, and clothing in hot water, the CDC says. Seal toys and other non-washable items in air-tight bags for two weeks.
This burrowing mite uses the host's skin as a nest of sorts for its young larvae. Scabies mites can burrow deep into the lower layers of skin and are tough to remove. They spread through contact and will make the skin itch, especially during nighttime hours when the bug is more active. Pimples, rash, and burrows are signs of infestation. Mites tend to infect the hands, wrists, armpits, and groin where the skin is thinner.
Scabies treatment must be prescribed by your healthcare provider. No over-the-counter treatments have been approved by the FDA. Approved treatments include:
- Benzyl benzoate
- Crotamiton lotion
- Keratolytic cream
- Lindane lotion
- Permethrin cream
- Sulfur ointment
If you or someone you've been living with has been infected, disinfect all areas by vacuuming sofas, rugs, and carpets and wash clothing, linen, and other fabrics in hot water. Just like with lice, you will need to seal toys and other non-washable items in airtight bags for two weeks.
This common parasite resides in mattresses, couches, chairs, and small crevices of furniture and wallpaper. The wingless bed bugs hatch from eggs and they can survive for years in their hiding places. They bite human skin and take their nourishment from blood during the night.
Bed bug bites leave raised bumps or welts on the skin and can cause fierce itching. The bites can also provoke severe allergic reactions. Scratching of affected areas can cause the skin to get infected.
For bed bug treatment, your healthcare provider may recommend over-the-counter topical or oral antihistamines and steroids for symptom relief and antiseptic or antibiotic creams to ward off infection. Wash bedding and towels in hot water and dry them with high heat. Encase mattresses, box springs, and pillows in --- you guessed it --- airtight bags.
According to the Indian Journal of Dermatology, the Demodex mite lives in or near hair follicles (the roots of your hair). Baby mites spread through skin-to-skin contact. They feed on skin cells and oil and die after a few weeks in the skin.
Demodex mites are typically found on the face in areas such as the eyebrows, eyelids, forehead, cheeks, chin, nose, and ears. The bugs often cause no symptoms unless they are present in large numbers.
If you house a crowd of Demodex mites, they can cause redness, swelling, or allergic reaction in the skin. These can lead to problems such as rosacea, loss of eyelashes, and conditions of the scalp.
Demodex invasion can be prevented by keeping skin clean, avoiding greasy creams, and exfoliating the face regularly, states the Indian Journal of Dermatology. For the treatment of symptomatic Demodex, your healthcare provider may recommend scabicide crotamiton, lindane, permethrin cream, or metronidazole. More severe cases may require ivermectin.
Chigger mites are most prevalent in tall grasses, weeds, or the borders of woods. The larvae infect bare feet, especially between the toes, as well as the ankles and around the waist. The mite attaches to the skin and the bite causes small red pimples and severe itching.
A rash can also appear on sun-exposed areas of the skin. After feeding, the larva falls off the skin. Your healthcare provider might suggest antihistamines and topical steroid creams or lotions for symptomatic relief.
Ticks attach themselves to the skin by piercing it with their jaws, where they can feed for days. They are usually picked up while walking in the woods. A tick's bite doesn't usually hurt but can cause mild itching. Ticks are tiny and tough to spot! After a day in the woods, be sure to check your skin thoroughly for any stowaways.
Ticks can carry serious viruses and bacteria. They can cause illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. If these go untreated, they can cause critical symptoms and even death. If you feel you have any symptoms of tick-borne illness, see a healthcare provider right away.
The CDC doesn't recommend treatment for ticks apart from removing the insect from your skin carefully. They tell us to remove the tick by pinching it with tweezers as close to the skin as possible, then pulling out with slow, even pressure until it comes out. If the mouth parts broke off, try to remove those too, but if you can't, you can clean the area and let it heal.
Human fleas are rare in North America. Dog or cat fleas are more common and can also bite humans. These flat, wingless parasites can inhabit bedding and animal sleeping areas. They reproduce quickly and can jump from host to host.
Flea bites produce itchy, red bumps, often in groups. The itching can be moderate and the bumps can get infected through repeated scratching. Some people have an allergic reaction to flea bites.
To treat your bites, wash them with antiseptic soap, and try to resist scratching. Your provider may recommend using calamine lotion or numbing creams to ease itching. You can also put an icepack on the area to lessen the symptoms. To eliminate the bugs, give pets flea treatment and treat rugs, carpets, and bedding with an insecticide.
Our skin --- especially warm, moist areas --- can play host to a variety of fungi (not mushrooms, in this case). Fungi is a general name for a broad group of organisms that produce spores instead of seeds.
Fungal infections cause redness, flaking, and chronic itching of the skin. A fungus spore can pass from one person to another or pass to humans from a household pet. Infections can be treated with topical antifungal creams such as clotrimazole or ketoconazole, or oral medicines under the direction of a healthcare provider.
Creeping eruption, also known as cutaneous larva migrans or sandworm disease, is caused by hookworms that appear most frequently in dog and cat feces.
This type of parasite will appear as a raised, red rash in a circular or trailing pattern. Hookworms can spread extensively and cause extreme skin itching.
Your provider can treat creeping eruption with albendazole, ivermectin, or thiabendazole. It will also resolve on its own in a few weeks if you choose not to get treated.
This kind of skin parasite is caused by the maggot, or larvae, of some two-winged flies. The flies lay their eggs on other insects or objects, which then move on to and burrow under the skin of humans. This type of infestation is most common in tropical countries.
You can get three types of cutaneous myiasis depending on the species of fly. These are boil, wound, and migratory myiasis. Boil myiasis is extremely painful and enlarges quickly.
Wound myiasis makes skin rot and migratory parasites move from person to person, causing illness in hosts. Depending on the type, myiasis treatment recommended by a healthcare provider can include medications like ivermectin, or sometimes surgical removal of the larvae.
The screwworm is the larva of a fly that resembles a housefly. It most often infects animals but can also affect humans. The fly lays hundreds of eggs along the edge of an open wound or other body openings. The larvae hatch from the eggs, burrow deep into the skin and destroy healthy tissue. Ulcers or boils can develop from the invasion.
The screwworm maggots might drop off the skin after five to seven days of feeding or persist for a long time in the skin and deeper tissues. Some cases can be fatal. Treatment includes removing the maggots from the site of invasion. This parasite had been essentially eradicated from North America but was found anew in 2016 in the Florida Keys. Infestation is more common in Central America, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world.
Parasites can infect the skin of anyone of any age, race, or geographical location. You can cut down on your chances of becoming infected by practicing good hygiene, washing clothing and linen frequently, and avoiding close contact with anyone who has parasites.