If you live in (or are taking a trip to) Florida, listen up. You have a new reason to be squeamish around rats and snails—they could be carrying a life-threatening parasite.
A new study found that rat lungworm, a brain-infecting parasite, is spreading throughout the Sunshine State, according to the Huffington Post. Rat lungworm is already present in Louisiana, Texas, and Hawaii, and it could continue to spread throughout the United States.
The parasite, which is carried by rats and snails, can infect the brain and cause meningitis in people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can also cause headaches, neck stiffness, nausea, vomiting, and abnormal sensations. In rare cases, the parasite has caused neurological problems or death. You can become infected if you consume animals or produce exposed to the parasite.
In the latest study from the University of Florida, researchers found rat lungworm living in rats and snails in five northern and central Florida counties. The parasite had already been found in southern Florida, so this new development has shown how it can and may continue to spread.
No cases of rat lungworm in humans have been reported in Florida yet, but there have been reported human cases in Hawaii for more than 50 years. While the parasite has historically thrived in tropical climates, we now know that it can also spread to more temperate regions.
Researchers say that to help prevent infection and properly identify infected people, awareness is key. “The parasite is here in Florida and is something that needs to be taken seriously,” Heather Stockdale Walden, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “The reality is that it is probably in more counties than we found it in, and it is also probably more prevalent in the southeastern U.S. than we think.”
To prevent rat lungworm, it’s important to wash produce thoroughly, as very small snails can hide in lettuce leaves. You should also teach children not to eat raw snails, and be aware of the risks of eating snails, frogs, and crustaceans. To protect your pets and livestock, check watering troughs for snails and monitor snail-eating habits.