We’ve all heard the horror stories about a steely-eyed, sharp-toothed “Creature From the Black Lagoon” staring back at you from the toilet bowl. Some of this is exaggerated hype, but whether we want to think about it or not, we inadvertently share our body space with many other creatures, some tiny and some relatively large. It’s a creepy feeling to know they’re inside of us, but beyond the emotional repulsion, what harm can they cause, and are there ways to prevent them from trespassing or evict them if they have already taken up residence? Let’s start with the basics about parasites and see what we can find out.
What Are Parasites?
Parasites are basically freeloaders that live inside of us and other animal hosts and feed, grow, and reproduce within our bodies. There are over 100 different types of human parasites. The word comes from the Greek for “para” (food) and “sitos” (food). They do not provide any of their own sustenance, eating our food and in some cases devouring our body tissues and organs. To make matters worse, they also excrete waste products that are toxic to our systems. Their presence can make us sick due to stolen nutrients, the physical effects of them taking up space in our bodies, and the toxic waste they give off.
Parasitic infections are most common in areas where sanitation and food-preparation techniques are poor, but even in “civilized” countries, such as the United States, parasitic infections exist in large numbers. While some studies have estimated that up to 50% of Americans have some form of parasite, the situation is much worse in other parts of the world. Parasitic infections are responsible for killing or disabling millions of people worldwide every year. These unwanted varmints are especially dangerous to folks with compromised immune systems, such as HIV/AIDS patients, for example.
What Kinds of Parasites Can Infect Us?
There are basically two types of parasites that can infect people, and in some cases, animals as well. They go by the very technical terms large and small.
- Large parasites mostly consist of the worm variety. The three most common types are roundworms, flukes, and tapeworms. Some of them can be quite large, up to three feet or longer, while others are only a millimeter or less. They typically find a home in your digestive tract where they attach themselves to the intestinal walls where they feed and multiply. Most remain in the intestines, where they rob us of nutrients and can cause intestinal discomfort. Others will burrow through the walls of the gut and enter the bloodstream whereby they can travel to other parts of the body and cause even more mischief. They are often associated with malnutrition and anemia.
- Small parasites are microscopic creatures, some composed of only a single cell. The most common are amoeba and protozoa. Most of the time they also remain in the intestinal tract, but when they do travel, they can be more dangerous and destructive than their larger worm cousins. Due to their small size, they sometimes infect major organs of the body such as the brain, heart, lungs, and liver, causing substantial damage.
Since there are so many different types of parasites, let’s take a look at some of the most common ones here in the United States:
- Roundworm infections are one of the most common types of intestinal parasites in the United States. There are many different varieties of roundworm infections. One of the most common is the pinworm.
Pinworms are quite common amongst children, and can be passed from person to person through infected bedding, toys, or by touching with hands that have the microscopic eggs of the pinworm on them. They migrate from the intestinal tract to the anus, where the female adults lay their eggs. Patients will often have very itchy anal areas, and when they itch, they often will get the eggs on their hands or under their fingernails. If they touch food, utensils, or food preparation areas, they can then spread the pinworms and infect others or reinfect themselves.
An easy way to test for the presence of pinworms is to place a piece of clear cellophane tape over the anus before bedtime, and then remove it first thing in the morning before bathing or having a bowel movement. The tape can then be brought to your health care provider to be examined for evidence of pinworms or their eggs under the microscope.
Another common form of roundworm infection is the threadworm. This parasite can live in the soil for up to 40 years or more, and is usually introduced to humans by walking in infected soil with bare feet. The worm enters the foot through the skin of the sole, and then this aggressive critter quickly enters the lymphatic tissues, the blood, and eventually ends up in the lungs. They then migrate upward into the upper respiratory tract, and are swallowed and introduced into the intestinal tract. Not as common here in the U.S. as they once were, they can still be found in foreign travelers and immigrants. Threadworms can cause significant damage to lungs (difficulty breathing, coughing up blood or pus) and the intestines (diarrhea, cramps, nausea and vomiting, and blood in the stool). Threadworms can even cause a sometimes fatal complication called hyperinfection syndrome whereby the infection becomes systemic and can cause heart disease, meningitis, blood poisoning, and other life threatening conditions.
- Tapeworm infections are another common type of large parasitic infection common to the U. S. The two most often found are both contracted by eating infected meats. Taenia solium is a tapeworm you can get by consuming undercooked pork. Taenia saginata is transmitted via raw or undercooked beef. These tapeworms are certainly not small, with some being discovered that were over 20 feet long! Imagine the damage that can do in your intestines. They are easily able to rob you of most of your nutrients, especially if the infestation is large. Anemia and malnutrition are common symptoms from both varieties of tapeworm, but the pork-derived ones can be the more dangerous of the two. If the eggs are allowed to reach other organs through the bloodstream, they can cause serious infections in the eyes, muscles, and especially the brain. Infection of the brain is called
cysticercosis, and can result in cysts in the brain that can trigger epileptic seizures.
- Protozoa infections can be passed through food, but are most often water-borne. Not too common in the States anymore, they are one of the most oft-found parasitic infections worldwide, typically where water treatment facilities are inadequate or lacking. Typically infections such as these will manifest themselves through intestinal discomfort such as cramping and diarrhea, but more severe cases can affect the heart, lungs, liver, brain, and other critical organs of the body. These are particularly dangerous for people with compromised immune systems. Remember the traveler’s mantra: Don’t drink anything that does not come in a sealed bottle.
- Toxoplasmosis is another parasitic disease that is fairly common in the States. It is usually transmitted through the feces of cats, and can be particularly dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn babies. This bug attacks the central nervous system and can result in miscarriages, stillborn babies, and a variety of birth defects. Pregnant women should never change cat litter or even go near the litter box.
How Do I Know If I Have Parasites?
There are some general symptoms that accompany most parasitic infections, but the problem is that they are seldom definitive, and are often mistaken for other conditions. Some of the most common include:
- Itching, particularly in the anal area and near the nose and ears.
- Significant unexplained weight loss
- Sudden changes in bowel conditions (i.e., from constipation to diarrhea, or vice-versa)
- Diarrhea accompanied by foul-smelling stools that worsen near the end of the day.
- Nasal Congestion
- Chest pain
- Rumbling and gurgling in the abdomen, not accompanied by hunger pangs
- Constantly feeling hungry, often accompanied by weight loss.
More severe infestations can result in additional symptoms:
- Impacted bowel
- Chronic fatigue
- Bloody stools
- Muscle aches and pains
- Difficulty breathing
- Teeth grinding (especially at night)
- Cognitive problems (such as disorientation or memory loss).
Other diagnostic techniques that may help pin down parasitic infections include:
- Ova and Parasite (O & P) test: This is a series of three to six stool samples collected every couple of days that are examined for evidence of parasites or their eggs.
- Blood tests can also be helpful. They can indicate general evidence of infection due to increased white blood cell counts, but sometimes antibodies that are present can be associated with specific typed of parasites.
How Can Parasitic Infections Be Treated or Prevented?
There are many drugs available to treat parasites, but as with most medications, they are quite potent and many have dangerous side effects, especially towards children and pregnant women.
The good news is that most parasitic infections can be avoided by using common sense lifestyle and dietary guidelines:
- Never eat raw or undercooked meat or fish, especially pork and beef. Be especially careful if you are traveling outside of the country. Many times food sources are not well regulated, and preparation techniques and cleanliness of facilities may be less than desirable as well.
- Be careful about drinking from public water systems. That goes for here in the U.S. as well as abroad.
- Limit dairy, fat, and sugar. Parasites thrive on these kinds of foods.
- Do a high quality, oxygen based colon cleanse to rid your gut of accumulated fecal matter and the parasites embedded in it. They have been getting a free lunch long enough. The oxygen components will destroy the anaerobic parasites and feed the good bacteria that you want present in your intestines.
- Follow the colon cleanse with a parasite cleanse. Choose one that is natural and effective against all intestinal parasites.
- Start taking a probiotic that will help replenish the good bacteria (flora) in your intestines.
These days it is a full-time job just to make sure you and your family eat well and get the proper nutrition you need to stay well. Get rid of the parasites that work against your efforts and only make a difficult job even harder. Your body will thank you with renewed energy and a bit more pep in your step.