Parasites are organisms that live by stealing the nutrients of their guests, and almost always become popular as something more evil thanks to horror movies and science fiction (ahem, Alien).
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But the reality is that parasitic infections are more common in humans than you imagine. For example, malaria is caused by a parasite, and this disease kills 600,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization.
However, of the parasites we discuss here, you surely already know them. They are called helminths and protozoa and cause gastrointestinal symptoms.
Definitely, you have heard about infections by helmitos like intestinal worms and hookworms. And you’ve also heard about Giardia, a protozoan parasite that causes diarrheal diseases. Sure, you have joked with this type of parasite saying that “you have worms,” but in reality, we are talking about something much more serious than that.
Although there are parasites that heal easily, others can be chronic and even fatal. More than 300,000 people live with Trypanosoma cruzi, a parasite that causes Chagas disease; More than 60 million people are chronically infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasitic disease that can cause flu-like symptoms; and 1.1 million people are infected for the first time with Trichomoniasis, a parasitic STD, every year. It’s not so funny anymore, right?
If you thought that parasites are the kind of things you can have through a trip abroad … you are very wrong. Humans can become infected through the ingestion of the parasite or its larvae (eggs) found in food or water contaminated with feces. Another way is by consuming the larvae found in raw meats such as pork or fish. And, sometimes, certain parasites have the ability to directly penetrate human skin when a person comes into contact with water or soil contaminated with feces. All this can happen at home, on the streets, or on a nearby beach.
So the question is: how will I know if what I have is a parasite and not a virus or a bacteria? To be honest … it’s not easy. There are more than a thousand types of parasites in the world, and the symptoms may vary, but they are more likely to be random. However, most parasitic infections share a number of similar symptoms, according to HealthLine such as: diarrhea, cramping or pain, nausea, lack of appetite, fatigue, unexplained rashes or skin irritation, cough, and involuntary weight loss.
In case you did not notice, the symptoms of parasitic infections have much in common with any other condition or virus. The key to identifying a parasite is the combination of these symptoms and their duration. A parasite can live inside a host for months or years without causing any symptoms. So a medical history, as well as a travel history is key to the diagnosis.
If you notice these symptoms and have recently traveled, had contact with dirty animals, eaten something that could be contaminated or simply there is no explanation for such a reaction, visit your doctor or gastroenterologist as soon as possible. Only they can send your blood and stool tests to determine the real problem. For example, certain parasitic infections can cause abnormalities in specific blood tests, causing conditions such as anemia, eosinophilia or elevated liver enzymes.
Although a true parasite would not cause an alien invasion, some can be extremely annoying. The idea is to identify it and treat as-soon-as-possible to maintain a healthy life.