The 6 Most Brutal Infections You Could Have Right Now
If you're reading this, you're almost certainly stuck indoors, maybe in a cubicle but certainly in some place that isn't a tropical beach. That's why we've always tried to provide the extremely critical public service of reminding you that things could be much, much worse.
So with that, let's look at these very real (although rare) infections that are so over-the-top bizarre that they'd be considered too gross for a David Cronenberg movie. No matter how this day goes, just be glad you don't have ...
The Parasite That Collapses Your Face
Remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where everyone's face falls apart? Well, maybe that wasn't God punishing the Nazis after all, but fast-acting mucocutaneous leishmaniasis -- the infection that makes your face collapse like it's a sacred temple and someone just stole the idol at the center.
Face melting has finally moved beyond Nazis and thieving Frenchmen.
In reality, mucocutaneous leishmaniasis takes a lot longer to act (months, years or even decades), and it begins in the most offensive way possible: with insect poop. The infection is spread through a poorly mannered sand fly that bites you and then proceeds to thank you for the meal by taking a dump in the wound. So already we're starting with the kind of action that would make Hannibal Lecter crinkle his nose and say, "Jesus, man, what is wrong with you?"
Ladies and gentlemen, the tampon that destroys lives.
But that's just how the parasite gets inside you -- that's when the scene really gets nasty. The parasite starts going after mucus cavities, like your mouth and your nose. What it's doing is essentially planting TNT in all those places, preparing to blow them to hell.
The first thing you notice, a long time after the initial shit-bite, is painful ulcers in the infected places. If you're lucky, you're left disfigured for life -- if you're not, your nose collapses into your mouth and your entire face caves in like a punctured inflatable.
This would suck enough on its own, but it's aggravated by all the health implications: You can't breathe well (because, again, you have no nose), eating is painful and can cause you to choke and your exposed airway is considerably more prone to catching pneumonia.
After all that, even your own saliva can kill you, and often does. See, this is why you never leave your bedroom unless you're wearing your airtight anti-insect protection suit, and even then only during the winter. But we're just getting started ...
The Infection That Dissolves You Like Acid
Gas gangrene is a condition that actually melts your flesh into gas and fluid, and is caused by the Clostridium perfringens bacteria. We won't show you images of it because they are gross, so here's the witch-melting scene from The Wizard of Oz instead. Just picture the same thing happening to you. Only much, much more slowly.
And without the whimsical creatures.
Gas gangrene won't dissolve your entire body, probably because you don't live long enough for that to happen: The infection is so devastating that it can kill you in 12 hours. As fast as that may seem, when you get to the part where your nerves begin to painfully dissolve into liquid, you'll wish it would just hurry the fuck up.
Oh hey, a close-up that doesn't make us want to kill ourselves.
The way it works is this: Once the bacteria gets into your system (usually through an improperly treated wound), it unleashes dozens of lethal toxins programmed to shear apart biological tissue, leaving behind liquefied flesh instead of pus as your body's way of saying "nothing to do here, pal." It also stops the blood flow to the infected limb, building up gas and turning your skin into human bubble wrap. The treatment for this infection hasn't changed a whole lot since the Civil War: It's called amputation.
And no one from the Civil War is alive today. Coincidence?
C. perfringens lives in dirt and is technically immortal (in extreme weather conditions, it turns into a nearly indestructible spore), which means that even if you survive, it can come back decades later to finish the job.
Oh, and here's our favorite part: It can survive perfectly well without becoming a parasite in a living body -- in other words, it melts your body simply because it can.
The Bite That Itches Under Your Skin (For Years)
Imagine a parasite that spreads through your entire body, even covering your eyes and turning them opaque. If you immediately pictured the extraterrestrial black oil from The X-Files, we're pretty sure it's actually worse than that. We're talking about the onchocerciasis infection ... which, also like the black oil, eventually turns into worms. Huh.
The X-Files often mirrors real life in that it's complicated and Duchovny has sex with everyone.
The Onchocerca volvulus parasite spreads through black flies, a type of fly that breeds near fast-running rivers, and it's actually the second leading infection that causes blindness in the world. Upon biting you, the black fly infects you with microscopic larvae that begin moving through your body, right below the surface of your skin, harmlessly at first. Just regular old worms under your skin.
"We're just here to chill out, pray for the doom of man, eat eyeballs. No biggie."
But then the party starts: Once they mature, the adult parasites turn your body into the worst orgy you've been to -- not just because you're not getting any, but also because afterward you're stuck with a shitload of babies. And we mean a shitload: A single female can release 1,000 worms per day. And they're all crawling inside you. Under your skin.
Soon, there are over a hundred million microscopic worms spreading through your skin, lymph system and, yep, your eyeballs. Once the worms reach the surface of your cornea, it becomes inflamed, eventually causing it to turn opaque and leaving you blind (which may be a relief, actually, because we assume all you'd see at this point is giant worms everywhere).
You are pretty much more worms than human at this point.
So, yeah, that's pretty bad (and pretty gross), but don't think this thing is gonna go easy on you now that you're disabled. When the worms die, your immune system goes haywire, producing an intense itching in every place they reached, which is everyplace -- and you can't even scratch that itch, because it comes from under your skin. With treatment, this can last a few years; without it, you'll be scratching yourself everywhere and nowhere for the rest of your life. The disease itself is not lethal, but not surprisingly, the itching alone has apparently driven people to suicide.
"Stop asking me what I've forgotten!"
See? Now your little case of athlete's foot doesn't seem so bad, does it? This is what we're here for, to keep things in perspective. The rest of these infections are even worse, by the way ...
The Bug That Eats You From the Inside Out
Killer worms that feed on live human flesh (as opposed to rotting flesh, which is usually way tastier for them) seems like the plot of a bad '70s horror movie ... and, in fact, it is. Unlike in that movie, however, the real life version of those worms didn't decide to go after humans because they were mutated by a freak accident, but simply because they are evil. There's no other possible explanation.
Pictured: The more rational option.
It all starts with a wound, any wound, even a small one caused by a tick's bite. That's all the screwworm fly (named "screw" for reasons that will become obvious) needs to plant its eggs in you, as many as 500. Once they've found a cozy spot inside the wound, the maggots will proceed to feed on your live tissue -- if disturbed, they'll drill even deeper into the cavity and probably won't stop until they see daylight on the other side.
"So then I said, 'Screw you, worm!' and punched it straight through my arm. It was badass."
Human deaths from screwworm infections are rare these days, because most people tend to notice when worms are coming out of the gaping holes in their bodies (also it hurts like hell), but the fact that this is still a thing that happens is disturbing enough on its own.
Even when there's no wound at all, sometimes these little fuckers will go for the already existing holes in your body, meaning your mouth, nose, eyes and ears. Aural myiasis (the technical term for "being earfucked by worms") is not as disfiguring as the other varieties, but it comes with the extra risk that, to paraphrase Pink Floyd, "the worms will eat into your brain," slowly making you lose your shit as you die.
And then you start putting tiny Herbie-style numbers on your pet flies.
When the worms have feasted enough, they emerge from your body and mutate into adult flies, flying off to infect others, like a tiny but no less disgusting version of the plot from Alien.
Hey, speaking of aliens ...
The Mold That Hijacks Your Brain
Alien brain-hijacking organisms are a common theme in fiction, from the parasites in Night of the Creeps to the slugs in Futurama. Well, there's a type of fungus right here on Earth that also takes over your brain and thoroughly messes it up, although it doesn't actually control your mind ... yet.
It just makes you bang on windows and throw copies of The Watchtower at your victims.
Molds from the order Mucorales live pretty much anywhere you find plants or dirt, meaning that everyone reading this article is probably covered in them right now, or at least everyone who's been outside recently.
All three of you.
People with lower defenses against these common fungi (like those with diabetes or recent organ transplants) are susceptible to a nasty condition called rhinocerebral mucormycosis. It starts like a sinus infection, and like everyone who has ever had sinusitis, you'll become convinced that there could be nothing worse in the world (but you'll be very, very wrong). This is followed by a swelling of pretty much everything currently in your head, including cranial nerves and eyes (think Arnold in Total Recall), followed by blood clotting and thrombosis. Your face is dying from the inside out, and starts looking that way -- you're slowly becoming covered in black, necrotic tissue.
Sometimes the fun spreads from the sinuses to the mouth, killing your palate. The only way to save you at this point would be to remove all the dead tissue, including the palate, nasal cartilage and portions of the skull, brain and eyes. Unless RoboCop technology is available, survival is little consolation.
"What's really annoying is all these ravens making nests in my eye sockets."
Even if it doesn't come to that, the most mind-fucking part (in more than one sense) is that the killer fungus is actually in your brain, leaving you disoriented, feverish and nearly blind.
Now, here's the thing: Researchers have discovered several types of fungi in Brazil that invade ants' brains, take control of their bodies and force them to move to a place more suitable for their growth before killing them. If fungi can do that, suddenly brain-snatching slugs don't seem so far-fetched. In fact, maybe it's already happening to humans and we don't realize it, and that's why old people move to Miami.
And grow tiny little crowns.
The Bacterium That Turns You into the Walking Dead
Neisseria meningitidis is one of the bacteria that can cause meningitis, a disease that you've almost certainly heard of and does not need to be more horrible (but is about to be anyway).
If you catch it on a bad day, N. meningitidis will go out of its way to smack you with a fulminant combo that leaves you with rotting limbs and a nearly nonexistent pulse and actually makes you dumber -- in other words, you're a lust for brains away from turning into a full zombie.
"We prefer the term 'differently alive'."
If you're afflicted with fulminant meningococcemia, it usually means you won't get any of the regular symptoms of meningitis, but that's actually bad news. First you're hit with a strong cocktail of every sick feeling you can imagine, including fever, nausea and headaches, because the bacteria are multiplying in your bloodstream and causing every organ system to fail. Within a few hours, you'll have serious trouble breathing and your blood pressure will drop so drastically that blood stops flowing to your limbs, which will turn all purple and gangrenous. You're basically walking around with dead body parts already.
Like a charley horse, only both rider and horse are necrotic.
Now, remember how we said that if you get this you "usually" won't get meningitis, too? Yeah, there's a reason we didn't say "always" -- in some cases, you'll get both the fulminant and the regular editions, meaning that on top of everything described above, the bacteria will also fill your brain lining with pus, putting you in a hazy, zombielike state of confusion (or, worst case scenario, septic shock and coma). But this doesn't just make you feel like you're becoming dumber: Meningitis actually drops your IQ. If you survive, the purple limbs may go away (literally, because they were just amputated), but we're afraid the learning disability is here to stay.
Oh, and by the way, 10 to 20 percent of the population is carrying a dormant version of this exact same bacteria in their mouths, right now. In other words, we're already infected. We're sorry we didn't tell you that earlier, but it was for your own -- GODDAMMIT, CARL, STAY IN THE HOUSE!
Combined IQ: 30.
For more terrifying ailments, check out 6 Terrifying Diseases That Science Can't Explain. Or learn about the 5 Horrible Diseases That Changed The World (For the Better).