healthHealth and Medicine

This Gruesome Family Medical Mystery Led To A Surprise Discovery About Centipedes


Dr. Katie Spalding

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer

Do not consume. PetlinDmitiry/Shutterstock

You do not want to get infected by rat lungworm. It's a nasty little bugger that can affect your spinal cord and brain, give you meningitis, and even leave you quadriplegic.

Usually, the parasite is found in slugs, snails, and – as you might have guessed from the name – the lungs of rats. But for the first time, scientists in Guangzhou, China have found that rat lungworm – or Angiostrongylus cantonensis, if you're being formal – can live in centipedes. 


And how did they make this grim discovery?

Like so many of civilization's more gruesome advances, it's all thanks to humanity's endless fascination with sticking terrible things in our pieholes.

According to a report in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, a 78-year-old woman and her 46-year-old son were admitted to hospital within weeks of each other, complaining of drowsiness, cognitive impairment, and headaches lasting for over 20 days. Both were found to be infected by the rat lungworm parasite, which they had picked up by – you guessed it – eating raw centipedes.

Speaking to the New York Times, study co-author Dr Lingli Lu explained that the son was previously healthy, and had started chomping on the creepy-crawlies after hearing a rumor that they would prevent winter colds. As a good son, he had also given his mother this sniffle-saving safeguard.


"[A]pparently these two patients believed that raw centipedes would be good for their health," she explained in a statement. "Instead it made them sick."

Although munching on myriapods might seem like an odd way to fend off illness, there's a long tradition of using centipedes in rural Chinese medicine. Usually, these recipes call for the creatures to be powdered, dried, or marinated in alcohol – which should kill off the lungworm parasite – but local vendors apparently sell them still crawling: the study notes that the researchers were able to buy 20 live centipedes at the patients' local market to confirm their diagnosis. Seven of these were found to be infected with lungworm larvae.

Both patients were successfully treated with a three-week course of antiparasitic medication, but Dr Lu wants us to take this as a warning in any case.

"We should not eat raw centipedes," she told Infectious Disease News. "We should realize that proper cooking technique is important to protect us from foodborne diseases."


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