Parasites: Could They Be Making You Sick?

Approximately a third of Americans have an intestinal parasite. Are you one of them?

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Monsters Inside Me Host: The Parasite That Spooked Even Me! (1:50)

Parasites aren't limited to travelers and exotic-food fans: Approximately 1 out of 3 Americans is infected with an intestinal parasite at any given time. Most of the time, your body's immune system helps to keep parasites in check or clear them from the body so they don't cause any symptoms. Sometimes, though, those pesky digestive complaints could be a sign that the parasites are getting the better of you. Keep reading to see if parasites could be making you sick.

While intestinal parasites can cause a multitude of symptoms, here are five general warning signs to keep an eye out for:

  1. Changes in the appearance or frequency of bowel movements, especially if you have excessive diarrhea or loose stools for two weeks
  2. Chronic exhaustion not resolved by a week of restful sleep
  3. Unexplained and sudden weight loss of at least 10 pounds over two months
  4. Itching around the anus for at least two weeks, especially if there is no rash
  5. Cramping and abdominal pain

To be even more specific, here are the signs and symptoms of four common parasitic infections:

Trichinella: Infection with the microscopic parasite Trichinella leads to trichinellosis, also known as trichinosis. People contract the parasite by eating raw or undercooked meat from infected animals. Initial signs and symptoms include diarrhea and abdominal cramping. As the infection progresses over the course of about a week, symptoms may become more severe and include high fever, muscle pain and tenderness, swelling of the eyelids or face, weakness, headache, light sensitivity and pink eye (conjunctivitis).

Hookworm: Hookworm infects an estimated 576 to 740 million people worldwide and was once a common infection in the U.S., particularly in the southeast. Fortunately, the number of infections has dropped thanks to improved living conditions. Hookworms are a type of helminth, or parasitic worm, that you can get by walking barefoot on contaminated soil. Most people with a hookworm infection have no symptoms, but because the worm's larvae can penetrate skin, an early sign of infection could be an itchy rash at the site of exposure. Digestive complaints may follow, with nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain that is worse after eating and increased flatulence. If infection persists, anemia and nutrient deficiencies may result.

Dientamoeba Fragilis: This parasite is one of the smaller parasites that can live in the large intestine. How it spreads is unclear, but is likely related to oral contact with infected fecal material (yet another reason to wash your hands before eating). In the acute infection, diarrhea and abdominal pain are the most common symptoms, with diarrhea being more predominant, lasting for one to two weeks. Stools tend to be greenish brown and watery or sticky. In chronic infection, abdominal pain is usually the dominant symptom, but people may also have loss of appetite, weight, nausea, vomiting, bloating or flatulence.