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.

Pinworm: Pinworms are small, thin, white worms that most commonly infect children but are also contagious and may affect adults. The worm's eggs may be carried to surfaces including hands, toys, bedding, clothing and toilet seats and must be ingested to cause infection. After an incubation period of at least one to two months, the main symptom is itching around the anus, which may be particularly bad at night. Disturbed sleep or abdominal pain may also result.

Natural Parasite Remedies: Could They Be Right for You?
If you believe you could have a parasitic infection, be sure to consult your doctor. There are many tests that may help determine whether you are infected and very effective medications to treat parasites. But there are also some natural remedies that may help you kick out the invaders as well. Keep reading to see if they could be right for you.

Garlic: Garlic has been shown to have antiparasitic and antihelminthic activity against a variety of different infections. In studies, garlic oil and garlic extract promoted immune defenses against parasites, and also helped to inhibit parasite function. Some experts suggest that two cloves of fresh garlic a day may help you fight off parasites, especially if you are traveling to countries where parasites are common. Anyone with a garlic allergy should not take garlic.

Wormwood tea: Studies suggest wormwood tea may also be effective against certain parasites, possibly by paralyzing or killing them. Some experts suggest that drinking wormwood tea three times a day for no more than 10 days may help with a parasitic infection. However, because wormwood is related to absinthe, make sure it is labeled "thujone-free" and be careful not to overuse it. It should also be used with caution in people with certain medical conditions. People with an allergy to wormwood, or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take wormwood. Always consult your doctor before beginning use.

Black walnut: Black walnut extract may contain pigments that are toxic to parasites, and it may also soothe diarrhea and constipation. Some experts suggest that 1000 mg of black walnut extract taken three times a day with water for no longer than six weeks may help people suffering from parasites. However, those who are allergic and pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take it. People with certain medical conditions, including kidney or liver disease, should use it cautiously, and long term use may be unsafe. Always talk to your doctor before beginning use of a new supplement or alternative treatment.