Intestinal parasites are more common than you may think. In developing countries, these parasites are the number-one cause of gastrointestinal infections. Now, as travel becomes easier and more common than ever before, intestinal parasites are making their way across the world, infecting people from all countries. Each year, about 50 million Americans are infected with intestinal parasites.
What Are Intestinal Parasites?
Parasites are organisms that feed off of other organisms. In this case, we’re talking about living organisms that make their way into a person’s gastrointestinal tract, where they then take up residence by latching themselves onto an intestinal wall.
These parasites feed themselves by consuming your food, taking your nutrients, and using your red blood cells. They also lay eggs, which lead to more parasites and even greater health problems.
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There are many ways one can become infected with an intestinal parasite. The ugly truth is that most people are walking around with some sort of parasite, although most are asymptomatic. Common ways to get an intestinal parasite include:
- Consumption of undercooked meat from an infected animal
- Consumption of contaminated water
- Consumption of contaminated soil
- Contact with contaminated feces or soil (some may enter the body through the bottom of the foot)
- Inadequate sanitation and hygiene
Types of Intestinal Parasites
Intestinal parasites are classified in one of two categories: helminths or protozoa.
Helminths, also known as parasitic worms, include flatworms and roundworms. The most common flatworms are tapeworms and flukes. Common roundworms include pinworms, hookworms, and whipworms. Hookworms are especially problematic because they can make their way out of the gut lining and cause intestinal blood loss that results in anemia. (1)
Protozoan parasites are one-celled microscopic organisms that quickly multiply and cause serious infection. When left untreated, these parasites can lead to diarrhea, dehydration, and death. Some protozoan parasites include Entamoeba, giardia, and leishmania. (2)
The most common complaints related to intestinal parasites are digestive problems, such as diarrhea, constipation, cramping, and gas—but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes intestinal parasites may not cause any symptoms at all. Sometimes the symptoms may be vague or unrelated to digestion, and so a person may not suspect an intestinal parasite.
The following signs and symptoms may indicate the presence of an intestinal parasite:
- Digestive problems: diarrhea, constipation, cramping, gas, dysentery, abdominal pain
- Skin problems: rashes, eczema, rosacea, hives
- Muscle or joint pain
- Brain fog
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Constant hunger
- Mood swings
- Teeth grinding during sleep
- Yeast infections
- Itching of the anus or vagina
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Sleep disturbances, insomnia
Different intestinal parasites cause different symptoms. Some parasites, like pinworms, for example, are mostly harmless because they do not cause disease. The main symptom of pinworms is itching or pain in and around the anus and vagina.
Hookworms can deplete your body of red blood cells, leading to anemia and weakness. Tapeworms eat the food in your intestines, causing a feeling of constant hunger. They can grow up to 35 feet in length and lay millions of eggs each day.
The protozoan parasite giardia causes a disease called giardiasis, with symptoms of diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, and severe weight loss. In serious cases, giardiasis can lead to dehydration and even death.
Diagnosing Intestinal Parasites
The first test that will be ordered when an intestinal parasite is suspected is a fecal stool exam. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that three or more stool samples be collected on separate days. The samples are then examined for ova (eggs) or the parasite. (3)
If the fecal stool exam is not sufficient, other tests may be ordered as well. These may include an endoscopy or colonoscopy, blood tests, or imaging tests such as an X-ray, MRI, or CAT scan.
Preventing Infection with Intestinal Parasites
Children are particularly susceptible to intestinal parasites because they play in the sand and soil, and they have close contact with one another in school. People in developing countries that lack clean water and proper hygiene are most at risk.
The best way to prevent intestinal parasites is to wash hands with soap and water regularly before and after using the toilet. Avoid eating raw fish, poultry, or meat, and make sure that raw meat is stored properly in a fridge or freezer before cooking. Wash fruits and vegetables very well before eating them.
If you’re visiting a developing country, drink only purified water and cook all food thoroughly before eating.
How to Treat Intestinal Parasites
Intestinal parasites are treated with antiparasitic medication. Most parasitic infections can be treated with oral medication. The downside is that sometimes these medications can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, weight loss, and insomnia.
If you prefer to avoid anti-parasitic medication and instead use a natural remedy, the following things have been proven to have anti-parasitic effects:
- Black walnut
- Oregano oil
- Grapefruit seed extract
- Clove oil
- Papaya seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
Of course, severe symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, or abdominal pain should not be ignored. Make an appointment with your doctor if you experience any severe signs or symptoms of intestinal parasite.
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Can Parasites Treat Autoimmune Disease?
Up until now, we’ve been discussing how intestinal parasites can negatively affect people. Would you believe, then, that some people voluntarily give themselves intestinal parasites?
Scientists are now examining the positive effects that parasites can have, especially when it comes to autoimmune disease. It seems that the rise in incidences of autoimmune diseases and the decrease in cases of intestinal parasites in developed countries is no coincidence at all.
Experts believe that improvements in living conditions have caused an increase in atopy and autoimmunity. This is called the Hygiene Hypothesis. (4)
Intestinal parasites, or more specifically, helminths, turn off Th1 and Th17 inflammatory cells that cause chronic inflammation.
We still have a long way to go until worm therapy will gain FDA approval, with many large clinical trials ahead of us—but the evidence is there. Parasitic worms may be the answer and the cure to autoimmune diseases.
Many people walking around with parasites are asymptomatic. Sometimes, however, they can cause a wide array of symptoms, including digestive problems, mood swings, weight loss, anxiety, iron deficiency, and more.
Parasitic worms are currently being tested as a potential treatment for autoimmune disease, but even so, let’s leave it to the experts to determine the who, when, and what of intestinal parasites.
Steer clear of contaminated food, water, and soil, and wash your hands often with soap and water. Make sure your children do the same. And of course, visit a doctor right away if you think that you or your child may be infected with an intestinal parasite.