Parasites are making the news lately, and we’re not talking about the adult friend or relative who’s been crashing on your couch, eating your food, and using up your bandwidth for an open ended period of time.
This is the real deal. Actual creepy crawlers, even microscopic ones, finding their way into your body and setting up camp.
Parasites are everywhere and many of them live incognito. Scientists don’t have a definitive tally on the number of parasitic organisms since new ones are always being discovered, but it’s estimated that they outnumber free-living organisms (humans, animals, plants) four to one!
And worst of all, often times the host - you, me, your pets - doesn’t even know they have been infected with a parasite!
Symptoms of a parasitic infestation can mask other conditions, making it difficult for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
Now that we’ve got you wondering if you’ve been infected, you’ll want to be aware of these easy ways you can get a parasite.
1) Parasites in Your Food
Food is an easy transport method for parasites, especially the unseen ones. It’s a direct trip to your digestive tract where parasites can cozy up and start multipying.
Having adequate stomach acid helps to destroy harmful microbes before they proceed to the intestines. But as we age, our natural output of stomach acid declines and we become more vulnerable to foodborne pathogens.
Just two months ago a recall was issued on pre-packaged vegetable trays from Del Monte due to contamination. The culprit was the parasite Cyclospora cayetanensis. In all, over 200 people in four states were reported to have been infected after eating the contaminated veggies.
Where did the contamination come from? Fecal matter is believed to be the blame. That’s the polite way of saying poop.
Somehow, despite all the precautions for health and sanitation that you would assume are in place at a well established food producer - we’re talking gloves, hair nets, fully covered limbs, and regulation mandated quality control protocols - the broken cog in the machine that sullied the Del Monte name was someone who didn’t wash themselves properly after using the bathroom.
An individual infected with Cyclospora can eliminate eggs encased in a protective cyst along with their stool. If the cyst remains on the skin or clothing, food, water or work surfaces that come into contact with the infected area can further spread the parasite. Once inside the small intestine, the protective cyst ruptures and the parasite takes up residence in the intestinal wall and replicates.
Shortly after the Del Monte demise, salads from McDonalds also fell victim to the Cyclospora parasite, sickening more than 100 patrons. And just a few days ago, Trader Joe's, Walgreens, and Kroger admitted concern over possible contamination of some salads and wraps with Cyclospora.
How does something like this happen in a well-developed nation like the US? It’s not like we’re using human fertilizer on our crops like they do in North Korea.
It just goes to show you that even food manufactured by trusted sources can leave you with more than a full belly. Raw or undercooked foods are easy targets if sanitation protocols are not followed.
2) Parasites in Your Water
When the weather heats up, we tend to do a few things to cool down - drink more water to stay hydrated and douse ourselves in cool water.
If you seek relief from the heat by going for a dip in the pool (public or private) or perhaps a water playground, you should know that even heavily treated water is not impervious to some species of parasites.
Chlorine was once believed to be a powerful disinfectant and preventative measure that could keep waterborne illnesses in check. However, parasitic outbreaks of Cryptosporidium and Giardia are well documented in industrialized countries with water sanitation protocols in place.
Cryptosporidium can survive in chlorinated water for up to seven days! Just a mouthful of Crypto-infected water is enough to result in diarrhea and vomiting that can persist for more than a week.
Not a pool or waterpark enthusiast? Drinking water is not always safe either. There’s a reason why you’re told not to drink the water when traveling abroad to developing countries that may not have high standards for public water sanitation, but even drinking water supplies in your own locale can become infected with parasites.
3) Parasites Transmitted by Insects
Insects can be more than just annoying - they can transmit deadly diseases to humans and animals.
Insects can carry organisms that are transmitted to the host through insect saliva during a blood meal or through feces if the insect defecates immediately after a blood meal.
One of the most fatal parasitic infections is malaria, caused by the Plasmodium parasite transmitted by an infected mosquito. According to the CDC, there were an estimated 216 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2016 resulting in 445,000 deaths. Most cases of malaria are reported in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, but roughly 1,700 cases of malaria are reported yearly in the US.
Bring on the insect repellent!
4) Parasites that Penetrate the Skin
Sometimes it’s nice to free your feet from the confines of shoes and socks, especially during these warm summer months. But some parasites see bare skin as an opportunity to latch on to a new host.
Some of the more common types of skin-loving parasites are head lice, scabies, and hookworm. While lice stay topside, scabies and hookworm actually burrow under the skin, causing severe itching and skin rash.
Did you hear about the teenager who was infected with hookworm from a Florida beach this summer? Playing in the sand turned out to be more than a fun Facebook worthy post of him covered in sand up to his head. The sand was contaminated with hookworm larvae likely deposited in feces.
Hookworm is an intestinal parasite that can penetrate the skin and migrate to the gut through the bloodstream. Different types of hookworm infect the intestines of humans and animals. Animal hookworms don’t adapt to the human body, so they stay under your skin instead of moving further inward.
The CDC advises wearing shoes in areas where human or animal fecal matter is known to contaminate soil, like grassy areas and beaches. Pet owners should be proactive in getting their dogs and cats dewormed regularly.
5) Parasites from Infected People
Just like a traveling flu virus, some parasites can hop from person to person. Contagious parasites include the skin-loving parasites mentioned above and pinworm. Close skin-to-skin contact or simply living with an infected individual increases the risk of sharing the parasite.
6) Parasites Inhaled by Breathing
Parasites are smarter than we give them credit for. They find ways to adapt and survive just like plants and animals.
Some parasites survive unfavorable conditions by forming a protective cyst around their microscopic bodies during the dormant (inactive) stage. Since they are small and light they can easily be picked up by air current and float around at will.
Pinworm, an intestinal parasite common among young children, is one such parasite that is easily airborne.
This is bad news for all us air-breathing creatures! You could pick up a parasite simply by breathing through your nose and mouth.
7) Parasites from Your Pets
We understand that your pets are family members. But your pets can be the reason why you have a parasite. The whole household could be infected!
If your dogs and cats sleep with you or if they cuddle up on upholstered furniture, be forewarned.
Remember the hookworm example? If your dog or cat has hookworms, you can get them too by coming into contact with their feces or the ground where they do their business. And this is just one example.
Tick and flea sharing is rather common, as are roundworms.
Roundworm is an intestinal parasite that can can be passed to humans through pet feces, and this one doesn’t stop at the skin. Roundworm eggs hatch in the intestinal tract and the immature worms can migrate to other parts of the body, including the brain and eyes.
Testing & Treating Parasites
By now you probably want to cocoon yourself in a plastic bubble for protection! We’re not safe from food, water, air, or our loved ones.
So how do you know if you have a parasite?
Tests can be done to determine if you do indeed have a parasite. Ask your doctor about testing or do an independent search for labs that offer parasite testing services.
Treatment for parasites is not a one-size-fits-all deal. Protocols for actually getting rid of parasites can vary based on the parasite type, level of infection, and health status of the individual.
General parasite cleanses are available without a prescription or your doctor may suggest a pharmaceutical parasiticide.
For more details on testing for parasites and treatments, please take a look at our related article Parasites - The Invisible Enemy.