What is tungiasis? What causes tungiasis?

The term tungiasis refers to an ectoparasitic infestation caused by a female ectoparasite called tunga penetrans flea. The flea is locally known by different names such as chigger flea, sand flea, chigoe, jigger, nigua, pigue, or le bicho de pe. The disease was first reported in Christopher Columbus's crewmen. The flea burrows into the skin of humans as well as animals. It reproduces in the warm- blooded host. The tunga flea is common in the tropical parts of Africa, West Indies and Caribbean regions. The increased number of travelers to the affected areas increases the risk of translocation of the disease.

What are the symptoms of tungiasis?

Severe itching, pain, localized blisters, fibrous cyst, inflammation and discharge from the swellings are the common symptoms of tungiasis. Severe infestation leads to ulceration and fibrosis. In humans the infection is mostly found in feet especially between the toes and toe-nails. Tungiasis if left untreated may lead to secondary infections such as bacteremia, gangrene and tetanus.

How is tungiasis diagnosed?

The visible symptoms of tungiasis are sufficient for diagnosis. However the doctor may also ask for traveling history of the patient. Tungiasis is confirmed if the patient had been to areas where the ectoparasite is prevalent.

How is tungiasis treated?

Treatment options for tungiasis include surgical removal of the parasite. Topical antibiotic medication is used after the surgical extraction to avoid secondary infection. surgery is often preferred to remove flea engorged with blood.

The following are the other treatment options for tungiosis.

  • Cryotherapy: In this treatment liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the tungiasis nodule.
  • Anti- parasitic medication: Medications such as niridazole, ivermectin, metrifonate and thiabendazole are used.
  • Petrolatum solution: This is found effective to suffocate the flea.  
  • If the flea is closer to the skin surface, a sterile needle or forcep can be used to remove it.
  • Zanzarin: It is an effective plant based insect repellant.

Can tungiasis be prevented?

The following are the necessary precautions to prevent tungiasis.

  • Use shoes while traveling in regions where the flea is found.
  • Use of insecticides such as malathion in affected areas can help reduce the risk of infestations.
  • Avoid walking barefoot.