For many Canadians, the winter season is often the time of year they’ll opt to trade in the cooler weather for warmer, tropical temperatures. However, as one Windsor, Ontario couple recently learned, that beach vacation could turn out to be more harmful to your health than one might realize.

In the midst of their week-long stay in Punta Canada last month, Katie Stephens and Eddie Zytner noticed the skin around their feet and ankles were unusually itchy. While they initially thought their symptoms were a result of being bitten by harmless bugs, such as mosquitos or sand fleas (which aren’t unpopular at beaches and other tropical areas frequented by tourists), the itching got worse. Upon returning home to Canada, the symptoms not only persisted, but also worsened as their feet began to develop with what appeared to be unusual markings, and they also became swollen and sore. The couple even shared some of the gruesome photos on Facebook.

After consulting with several physicians, including three separate hospital visits, Katie and Eddie were both ultimately diagnosed with larva migrans – more commonly known as hookworms. So what are hookworms, exactly? Hookworms are parasites that can easily penetrate the skin of both humans and adults, and the infection is often transmitted as a result of walking barefoot on soil or sand that is contaminated. While some hookworm infections may not present with any symptoms whatsoever, it’s also not uncommon to develop a localized rash and itching of the affected areas of the skin. You can also develop a severe infection as a result of hookworms with symptoms such as abdominal pain, loss of appetite, diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and even anemia.

When travelling abroad we often think of things like food poisoning and will make sure to take extra precautions against it, but never do we ever really think twice about any of the other health hazards that could potentially occur. Now, in the hope that what they experienced won’t happen to anyone else, the couple is urging others to seek medical treatment if they notice any abnormalities – even if you think it’s nothing serious. “If your feet become incredibly itchy, please get it checked out right away since we simply thought it was just bug bites and it became worse as each day passed,” says Katie.

Vancouver family physician, Dr. Ali Ghahary, and other general practitioners say the best way to prevent hookworms from developing is simple: Avoid walking barefoot on beaches or where hookworms might be common – and, as both Katie and Eddie urged, you should always seek immediate medical treatment if you develop any strange symptoms, like severe itching or a rash. With the right medication, hookworm can be treated within 1 to 3 days. Avoiding medical intervention  could result in serious complications, including skin damage, and you may need to use crutches to get around before you are fully able to walk without experiencing pain.