Ask Emily

29 09 2011

Are there really worms living in our eyelashes?

Well, no, not worms, exactly. Exactly speaking, they are arachnids. And unless you’re in the estimated 5% free of these microscopic critters, there’s likely more than one living in that forest of hairs lining your eyes. I know, there’s a major ewww factor involved for a lot of people, especially when you see images of these things. By the way, obtaining those images appears to involve extracting the microscopic mites from hair follicles using “Krazy Glue” (see below).

Clocking in at a tiny 0.1  to 0.44 mm, the mites, if you’ve got ‘em, move around mostly at night on their four pairs of legs and dine sumptuously on surface skin cells (and yes, they poop). Many people walk around oblivious to their presence, but if the mites do cause symptoms, they generally are of the irritation sort, such as itching and scaling skin on the eyelids. These mites may not stay confined to the eye area and have been found in people who have rosacea, although whether or not they’re causative in that skin disorder remains unclear.

As with many organisms we host, it may be that disease or infection gives them a greater opportunity for colonization, especially if the immune system is suppressed or overtasked. They’ve also been implicated in conditions involving dry eyes, facial inflammation, and an eye disorder called blepharitis.

We’ve known about our cohabitation with these mites since at least 1840, when the primary species that inhabits us, Demodex folliculorum, was identified. It may make or may not make you feel better to know that this mite is the only parasite that hangs out in this specific area. Their presence appears to increase with age, with one study finding it in 84% of a population with an average age of 61 years, but in 100% of those older than age 70. They don’t seem to care at all whether you’re male or female. In spite of their ubiquity, though, these parasites are by no means off the hook when it comes to implications of their involvement in disease. As one publication has noted—and it’s worth quoting here—

As old-fashioned as mites may seem, and as low-tech is their removal from the follicle with Krazy Glue on a glass slide, the reader is cautioned that one of the great minds in dermatology suspected Demodex to be an unindicted coconspirator in several still poorly understood skin disorders. One could do worse than to further consider the possibility.

I supposed one could.

Do you have a question for Emily? Send it to: pkids@pkids.org

By Emily Willingham

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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