8 Silent Signs You Could Have a Parasite
You may think they’re only a problem in poor or developing countries, but parasites affect millions of people in North America every year.
What is a parasite?
Before 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.
You ingested (or swam in) some questionable water
Whether you were travelling 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 eight most common travel illnesses—and how to avoid them.
You enjoy a rare steak
Tend 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 centimetres in length and lead to intestinal blockage, so you definitely want to avoid them. Check out nine more foods you should never eat raw.
You’re losing weight
There 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. Don’t miss these other strange symptoms that can signal a serious disease.
You have a compromised immune system
A 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.
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You’ve got other GI symptoms
Perhaps 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, avoid these seven sneaky things that trigger IBS symptoms.
You have trouble breathing
Parasites 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. Watch out for these other symptoms that could indicate serious health problems.
You’ve got an unusual vaginal discharge
The 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 odour), itching, redness, and soreness of the genitals, discomfort while urinating, and pain during sex. Don’t miss these 15 secrets your gynecologist would love to tell you.
You’ve got no symptoms at all
It’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 (and avoid these mistakes when you make your doctor’s appointment). You’ll likely need a series of blood tests, fecal tests, X-rays, or a colonoscopy to be screened, but it’s worthwhile. (Here’s how to properly prepare for a colonoscopy.) 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 10 silent signs your body is in big trouble.