What is a parasite?
Jarabogu/ShutterstockBefore you go self-diagnosing a parasite, it’s important to understand what they are. “A parasite is an organism that lives on or in a host organism and gets its food from or at the expense of its host,” according to the CDC. There are three classes of parasites: protozoa, which are tiny, one-celled organisms that typically live in the intestines, blood, or tissue; helminths, which are parasitic worms such as tapeworms, roundworms, and thorny-headed worms; and ectoparasites, which are ticks, fleas, lice, and mites that attach or burrow into the skin. Parasites can cause disease and even death, but fortunately, if caught early, the infections can usually be treated with medication. Here are some signs that you could be hosting one of these tiny invaders, including the parasite that millions of people in the United States have and don't know it!
You ingested (or swam in) some questionable water
Jarva Jar/ShutterstockWhether you were traveling abroad and drank from the tap or went to the lake around the block and splashed around for a bit, ingesting contaminated water is one of the most common causes of parasites, according to Daliah Wachs, MD, a board certified family physician in Las Vegas. These are the 35 health secrets your body is trying to tell you.
You enjoy a rare steak
Dean Drobot/ShutterstockTend to prefer your foods on the rare side? It might not be the best option if you’re looking to avoid a parasite. “Ingesting raw or undercooked beef or pork can lead to [infection by] the taenia species of intestinal tapeworms,” says Dana Hawkinson of the University of Kansas Health System. “Eating certain raw fish can lead to [infection by] the diphyllobothrium species of intestinal tapeworm. Additionally, ingestion of contaminated food or water can lead to an ascaris infection.” Ascaris intestinal roundworms can grow up to 35 centimeters in length and lead to intestinal blockage, so you definitely want to avoid them. Check out the kitchen mistakes it's time to stop making.
You're losing weight
Africa Studio/ShutterstockThere are many diseases that cause unexplained weight loss—and parasitic infection is one of them. “Tapeworms will cause you to lose weight because you have this huge worm in your intestines eating your food,” Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, the medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, told Today. The weight loss is often accompanied by loss of appetite and upset stomach.
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You have a compromised immune system
Andrey_Popov/ShutterstockA compromised immune system could inhibit your body’s ability to fight off a parasite. “Those with diabetes and HIV, as well as those undergoing transplants who are on immunosuppressants, are most at risk,” Dr. Wachs says.
You’re spending a lot of time in the bathroom
Lukassek/ShutterstockAccording to the CDC, giardia infection is the most common intestinal parasitic disease affecting humans in the United States—you might get it from drinking giardia-infested water, eating raw food that contains the parasite, touching surfaces contaminated with giardia (like bathroom handles or diaper pails), or swimming in giardia-infested lakes, rivers, or streams. If you’ve got it, you’ll be quick to notice that something is amiss. The infection is known for causing watery diarrhea, gas, abdominal cramps, and dehydration within one to three weeks after exposure.
You’ve got other GI symptoms
Ryazantsev Dmitriy/ShutterstockPerhaps the most common symptoms associated with parasites are ones that mimic irritable bowel syndrome. "Gastrointestinal parasites can cause abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, anal itching, anemia, and intestinal obstruction," says Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. If you have these symptoms in absence of a parasite, try these 8 ways to relieve IBS symptoms naturally.
You have trouble breathing
create jobs 51/ShutterstockParasites can thrive in places other than the intestines. "If a parasite resides in the lung, it can cause respiratory symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath," says Dr. Adalja.
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You’ve got an unusual vaginal discharge
Mangostar/ShutterstockThe protozoan parasite called trichomonas vaginalis is a common sexually transmitted disease. Symptoms include a change in vaginal discharge (it may be thinner or thicker, white or slightly yellow or green, and have a fishy odor), itching, redness, and soreness of the genitals, discomfort while urinating, and pain during sex. Here are 9 other things vaginal discharge can tell you about your health.
You’ve got no symptoms at all
Maksym Poriechkin/ShutterstockIt's scary but true: Some parasitic infections produce zero symptoms. If you have reason to suspect you may have one, see a doctor as soon as possible. You'll likely need a series of blood tests, fecal tests, X-rays, or a colonoscopy to be screened, but it's worthwhile. Ultimately, parasites can cause serious illness. "You can eventually become dehydrated and die, or some parasites will invade other organs," says Dr. Wachs. "Antibiotics will not treat all these, so we use anti-parasite medications primarily, and give fluids to maintain hydration." If left untreated, she adds, "parasites will use your body to thrive—at your expense." Don't miss the 15 silent signs your body is in big trouble.