Thelazia gulosa; photo credit: CDC

Oh God, No! Trail Runner ‘Catches’ Parasitic Worms in Her Eyes

In a nightmarish turn of events, a 68-year-old woman discovered that a cloud of flies she ran through actually left worm larvae in her eyes.

Trail runners have enough to worry about already. From rattlesnakes to bears to mountain lions, wildlife presents an ever-present, if unlikely, danger. But a recent report from the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) suggests a new, more horrifying threat: parasitic eye worms.

Note: Stop reading right now if you’re squeamish or enjoy relaxing runs along the coastline. Good? Good.

A 68-year-old Nebraska woman was on a trail run during a trip to California in 2018, Science Alert reported. The unnamed woman later told doctors that while running along the coast in Carmel, she passed through a cloud of flies.

“She recalls swatting the flies from her face and spitting them out of her mouth,” the IDSA would later report. This gross but not uncommon nuisance should be all too familiar to anyone who’s run near a lake, river, or shoreline — which makes what happened next all the more terrifying.

In the month that followed, the woman told researchers, she began to feel growing irritation in her right eye. So she flushed her eye with water when, shockingly, a half-inch “wriggly roundworm” came out, according to Live Science.

But the gruesome ordeal didn’t end there. The woman found a second roundworm and extracted that as well. The following day, on a (completely warranted) trip to the ophthalmologist, a doctor removed a third eye worm, according to the Sacramento Bee. And if that all wasn’t terrible enough, the woman pulled out a fourth worm after returning home to Nebraska.

“That fourth worm was the last ever found in the woman’s eyes, and for that she might consider herself lucky,” Science Alert wrote, leaving us to wonder what mind-boggling definition of “luck” we’re talking about here.

A subsequent analysis of that final worm revealed the Nebraska woman was only the second-ever confirmed human case of Thelazia gulosa (“cattle eyeworm”) infestation. The only other known case occurred in 2016 when then-26-year-old Abby Beckley pulled 14 of the creepy crawlies from her eyes after a fishing trip in Alaska, National Geographic reported.

If you’ve read this far, you may as well read on, because there’s some good news. In all likelihood, no trail runner will ever have to worry about contracting T. gulosa. The worms, which are carried by the flies you typically see buzzing around cows’ eyes, feed on an animal’s tears. But though disturbing, only 11 cases of any species of Thelazia worms have ever infected humans, according to National Geographic.

Still, the IDSA report said the fact that both reported cases occurred within 2 years of each other “suggest[s] that this may represent an emerging zoonotic disease in the United States.” And on that note, you can buy a pair of swim running goggles here.

Adam Ruggiero

Adam Ruggiero is the editor-in-chief of GearJunkie and a fan of virtually all sports and activities. From biking, running, and (not enough) surfing, to ball sports, camping, and cattle farming — if it's outside, it's worth doing. Adam graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism. Likes: unique beer, dogs, stories. Like nots: neckties, escalators, manicured lawns.