When Rochelle Harris returned home to England from a trip to Peru, she kept hearing a scratching sound from her ear. When she started to have severe headaches and a discharge from one ear, she decided to visit her doctor.
The first doctor brushed off her condition as an ear infection, but specialists later discovered the 27-year-old had flesh-eating maggots lodged in her ear, Sky News reports. Tests showed Harris had no damage to her eardrum, blood vessels or facial nerves, but the worms did chew a 12-millimeter hole in her ear canal.
"I was very scared. I wondered if they were in my brain. I thought to myself, 'This could be very, very serious,'" Harris said.
The British woman remembers removing a fly from her ear while in Peru but nothing else. At first, doctors treated her for a routine mosquito bite. Once the maggots were discovered, doctors tried to flush them out with olive oil, but that didn't work.
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"It was the longest few hours that I have ever had to wait... I could still feel them and hear them, and knowing what those scratching sounds were and what that wriggling feeling was, that just made it all the worse," she told Reuters.
Harris eventually underwent surgery during which doctors found a "writhing mass of maggots" in her ear. Some had laid eggs.
The eight maggots found were larvae of the New World screwworm fly (Cochliomyia hominivorax), LiveScience reports. The fly breeds in wounds on mammals and humans. A female can lay up to 250 eggs, which can hatch within 24 hours.
In a related incident last year, a 92-year-old Chicago woman living at a nursing home had 57 maggots crawling in her ear, Fox News reports. Doctors said the Alzheimer’s patient had them for at least two to three days before staff brought her to the hospital.
Screwworm flies once existed in the United States but were successfully eradicated in 1959 after sterile males were introduced in the population. Today, the fly exists in almost all tropical climates, including northern countries in South America.
Harris says there’s one positive outcome from her experience. “I'm no longer as squeamish as I was about bugs -- how can you be when they've been inside your head?”