What is rat lungworm and can you get it?

A parasite often said to be extremely rare may be more common than initially thought. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that rat lungworm was detected in 12 people in the continental United States between 2011 and 2017.

The parasitic infection was found in eight different states, including New York. And yes, it is just a gross as it sounds.

"This is a parasitic worm that's found in rats, mostly, but also in snails and slugs and sometimes frogs," said Dr. Len Horovitz, an internist and lung specialist at Lennox Hill. He said that the parasite got its name because it lives in the lungs of rats.

"An infected rat coughs up worms from the lungs into the throat where they are then swallowed by the rat," according to a CDC video. "The worms are now in the rat's digestive system and eventually end up in the rat's poop."

Slugs or snails on the ground eat the poop and pick up the parasite. Those creepy crawlers then make their way to fruits and vegetables. If that food is picked and not washed, the parasite could end up in a human's digestive system.

"This worm can burrow from organ system to organ system," Dr. Horovitz said.

In extreme cases, rat lungworm can spread to the brain and cause meningitis, neurologic deficits, coma, and even death.

At least six patients reported eating raw vegetables while others said they had eaten snails, prawns, frog, or crab, according to the CDC.

"The important thing is whether you have a backyard that might have snails or slugs or frogs and whether you're raising fruit or vegetables in your backyard and whether you eat these things," Dr. Horovitz said.

So how do you avoid getting rat lungworm? The best thing you can do is wash your produce and cook your food thoroughly, according to the CDC. Boil prawns, snails, frogs, and crab for three to five minutes.

"If you handle snails or slugs, wear gloves and wash your hands. Always remember to thoroughly wash fresh produce," the CDC recommends on its website. "When travelling in areas where the parasite is common, avoid eating uncooked vegetables."