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Parasites: Types, Symptoms, Tests, and Treatment
How much do you know about parasites? The average person doesn’t know a whole lot about these harmful and largely unseen critters. But if you have a complex chronic illness or just want to be healthier overall, you need to learn about these pathogens.
Most conventional physicians and healthcare professionals in the United States aren’t aware of how widespread parasitic infections are. They might even tell you that your idea of being infected with parasites is “all in your head.” (1, 2)
Well-meaning but poorly-informed doctors may lead you astray. Truly, you aren’t suffering from a “parasitic delusion disorder.” Parasites are quite likely contributing to your health problems.
Parasites are much more common in developed countries than most people realize. For example, it’s estimated that more than 12% of Americans carry Toxoplasma gondii. That’s a microscopic parasite you might get from your cat.
Ignoring parasites won’t make them go away. And the increasingly toxic environment — from pollution and other environmental toxicity — could worsen a parasite problem. Toxins can weaken your body’s defenses and alter parasite activity.
Parasites can trigger a wide range of health issues. In some cases, they may be the real culprit behind chronic problems like irritable bowel syndrome and some autoimmune diseases.
Consider this your primer on all things parasites. Find out exactly what they are, different types, and common symptoms. Plus, learn how they’re diagnosed and how to eliminate them naturally.
What Is a Parasite?
Parasites are pathogens that live on or inside other organisms. They can cause significant harm. Their livelihood is generally at the expense of their host, as they depend on their host for nourishment.
These critters can range in size. Some are microscopic, such as Toxoplasma gondii and giardia. Other parasites can easily be seen by the naked eye. An adult tapeworm, for example, can reach a length of more than 49 feet (15 meters).
Some microscopic parasites live inside your cells, such as red blood cells or fat cells. Larger critters — like parasitic worms — are more likely to live in the spaces between your cells. Parasites can invade your muscles, lymph, brain, gut, lungs, liver, and other organs and tissues.
Also, parasites can obstruct parts of your organs and disrupt their function. For example, some worms can block the valves between your intestines or clog your bile ducts. No wonder they commonly mess up your digestive system, as you’ll see in the next section.
How do parasites get away with all this?
The critters use various tactics to evade and manipulate your immune system. For example, single-celled parasites can change the proteins on their surface, so your immune cells don’t recognize them.
And some parasites alter their form — such as changing into a protective cyst to evade your immune system.
You need to be smarter than the parasites if you want to kick them out and reclaim your health. Gaining the upper hand starts with knowing the symptoms of parasitic infections.
What Are the Symptoms of Having a Parasite?
The symptoms of parasitic infections vary with specific critters. But many symptoms are vague and can happen for several reasons. So, they may be incorrectly attributed to other diseases.
For example, many parasites infect your gut, leading to a range of digestive symptoms. So you may be misdiagnosed as having irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease. In reality, parasites could be at the root of your gut distress.
So, keep an open mind about your symptoms. Consider — could they be due to parasites that conventional doctors have overlooked?
Some of the signs and symptoms linked with parasite infections are:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
- Air hunger
- Autoimmune disease
- Bed-wetting (kids)
- Bladder inflammation
- Chronic fatigue
- Eye inflammation
- Flu-like symptoms
- Food sensitivities
- Gallbladder and bile duct disease
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Itching around your anus
- Leaky Gut
- Low blood sugar
- Muscle and joint pain
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Skin rashes and sores
- Teeth grinding
- Weak immunity
- Weight loss
Parasites tend to be more active at night. That can cause a spike in symptoms when you’re trying to sleep. Still, symptoms may strike at any time of day, and some are ongoing.
Also, realize that symptoms of parasite infections aren’t necessarily immediate. Some new infections may cause digestive upset within a day. But others may not produce noticeable symptoms for longer periods, like a few weeks. Some parasitic infections drag on for years.
In addition, keep in mind that parasites are like a Trojan horse. They may harbor other pathogens, such as the Lyme bacteria and mold spores. Those can contribute to your symptoms as well. That can make getting to the root of the problem tricky.
What Are the Different Types of Parasites?
Parasites that infect people fall into one of three broad categories: protozoa, helminths, and ectoparasites.
It’s helpful to understand each type when you embark on a parasite cleanse. That way, you know what you might see coming out in your stools. You can see some parasites with the naked eye. But many others are microscopic, like the protozoan giardia, shown greatly magnified above.
Also, it’s good to be familiar with the scientific names of common parasites. That’s useful if you do any testing or want to look up the symptoms of specific critters. You’ll find many examples below.
As you look at parasite names, you’ll see words like Giardia lamblia. The genus (giardia) is the first word in the parasite name. The second word (lamblia) is the species.
Sometimes people refer to parasites by only part of their scientific name. And sometimes the genus is abbreviated with the first initial, such as T. gondii. That’s the same thing as Toxoplasma gondii.
Don’t worry. There won’t be a quiz at the end of this blog. But it could be a helpful reference for you in the future. Bookmark it.
You’d need a microscope to see these single-celled parasites. But don’t dismiss protozoan parasites due to their small size. They can wreak havoc in your body and create serious health issues.
Examples of protozoan parasites that infect people and some symptoms are:
- Babesia microti: A Lyme coinfection that can cause flu-like symptoms and anemia
- Blastocystis hominis: A cause of leaky gut, which can lead to food sensitivities
- Cyclospora cayetanensis: Can result in explosive bowel movements and diarrhea
- Cryptosporidium parvum: Causes watery diarrhea and other digestive upset
- Dientamoeba fragilis: Causes diarrhea, abdominal pain, and appetite loss
- Entamoeba histolytica: Triggers stomach pain and loose stools, which may be bloody
- Giardia lamblia: Causes diarrhea, greasy stools that float, and upset stomach
- Leishmania tropica: Leads to skin sores, which may start as bumps
- Plasmodium falciparum: Causes malaria, characterized by flu-like symptoms
- Toxoplasma gondii: Sparks mild flu-like symptoms and enlarged lymph nodes
- Trichomonas vaginalis: Triggers burning and itching of your reproductive organs
- Trypanosoma cruzi: May lead to enlarged spleen and liver, plus abnormal heart rhythms
Specific parasites tend to infect certain types of cells. For example, plasmodium infects your red blood cells, and blastocystis infects your intestinal cells. But toxoplasma infects a wide range of different cells. Your symptoms could vary based on what cells the parasites infect.
Helminth is the general term for a parasitic worm. Unlike protozoan parasites, you can see many helminths with the naked eye.
For example, some Ascaris lumbricoides worms are up to 12 inches (35 centimeters) in length. But pinworms are just the size of a staple and white, so you might miss them if you’re not looking closely.
Similar to protozoans, different helminths gravitate toward specific areas of your body. That’s why they affect the functioning of particular organs and systems.
The two main groups of helminths that infect people are roundworms and flatworms. Up next is a closer look at those.
These parasitic worms are also known as nematodes. They could infect various areas of your body, including your skin, lungs, liver, intestines, and tissues — such as your muscles.
Some subtypes within the roundworm category are hookworms and pinworms. Hookworms get their name from the hook-like bend of their head. Pinworms are so-named due to the females’ pin-like tail.
Examples of common nematodes and some of their effects include:
- Ancylostoma duodenale: A hookworm that infects your gut and causes anemia
- Ascaris lumbricoides: A common intestinal roundworm that causes abdominal discomfort
- Enterobius vermicularis: A pinworm that infects your colon and makes your anus itch
- Necator americanus: A hookworm that infects your gut and causes anemia
- Strongyloides stercoralis: A nematode that infects your gut, with reinfection possible with each new batch of larvae
- Trichinella spiralis: A nematode that can cause stomach upset and infect your muscles, causing pain
- Trichuris trichiura: A whipworm that causes painful, bloody diarrhea
Within the flatworm category, two common subtypes are flukes and tapeworms. As you might guess from the name, both have flattened bodies. But their shapes are pretty different from each other.
Flukes have a leaf-like shape. These critters may invade your blood, intestines, lungs, and liver. Flukes that infect your liver can damage your bile ducts.
Tapeworms have ribbon-like bodies that are segmented. They most commonly infect your small intestine and can cause nausea and weight loss. They may also migrate to your gallbladder and block the common bile duct.
Examples of flukes and tapeworms are:
- Schistosoma mansoni: A blood fluke that hides in your intestines and steals your nutrients
- Clonorchis sinensis: A liver fluke that you may get from eating raw fish
- Taenia solium: A long tapeworm that you may get from eating undercooked pork
- Taeniarhynchus saginata: A long tapeworm that you may get from undercooked beef
Ectoparasites are bugs that attach to your skin to feed on your blood or skin tissue. A few kinds even burrow under your skin. They may trigger itching. Ectoparasites are very common.
Some familiar examples of ectoparasites are:
- Bed bugs
- Mites (including chiggers and scabies)
Some ectoparasites (such as bed bugs) only visit you temporarily to get their blood meal. Others (like lice) don’t leave until you make efforts to get rid of them.
More significant than what these bugs take from you is what they give in return. Some ectoparasites not only feed on you, but many are also vectors that carry other pathogens. They can transmit infectious microbes to you as they feast.
For example, ectoparasites can give you pathogens like Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria (which cause Lyme disease), and Plasmodium falciparum parasites (which cause malaria). Some can also transmit Lyme coinfection, including babesia and bartonella.
How Does a Person Get a Parasite?
Parasites are sneaky and can be lurking just about anywhere —in water, food, pets, soil, other people, and surfaces you may touch.
You may contract parasites from contaminated or infected:
- Food: As mentioned above, undercooked meat and seafood can be sources of parasites. Raw food, including fruits and veggies, can also be tainted with parasites. If you’re uncertain how your produce was handled, clean it with grapefruit seed extract diluted in water. It’s effective against many microscopic parasites and other pathogens.
- Water: This includes water you drink — even some municipal water. You may also encounter parasites like giardia in water handled by an infected restaurant worker with unclean hands. And you could contract parasites like cryptosporidium if you swim in contaminated lakes, streams, and swimming pools.
- Soil: You can pick up parasites from the soil, such as by walking barefoot outside. Ascaris, hookworm, and whipworm commonly contaminate the soil and may linger for years. Wear shoes when walking in questionable areas, including where animals poop.
- Pets: Furry friends can give you parasites, especially if veterinary care is overlooked. For example, you could get a T. gondii infection from handling contaminated kitty litter. And wash your hands well after touching pets. Parasite eggs can stick in their fur.
- Blood transfusions: Before you donate blood, you may be asked if you’ve had certain blood-borne parasites like babesia. But some people don’t even know they’re infected. And labs only test for certain parasites in blood donations.
- Surfaces: Toys, bedding, door handles, and other objects can be tainted with parasites, particularly tiny pinworm eggs. These eggs can also become airborne. They can linger on objects and in the air for a few weeks. And you can breathe them in.
- Toilets: Pinworms can stick to toilet seats and can contaminate other objects in the restroom. If you must sit on a public toilet seat, create a barrier first. Some restrooms supply paper liners for seats, but you can also use toilet paper.
- Other people: If someone is infected and doesn’t wash their hands well after using the restroom, they could pass parasites to you. Also, an infected mother can transmit certain parasites to her unborn child. And some parasites are transmitted sexually, including T. vaginalis.
Keep in mind, some people carry parasites and don’t know they’re infected. But they may still transmit them to you. If you have a weakened immune system — such as from other chronic infections like Lyme disease — you’re at higher risk of contracting parasites.
Heavy metal toxicity could also make you prone to parasite infections. Heavy metals can weaken your immune system. On top of that, parasites tend to accumulate heavy metals. These can be released when you kill the critters. So, be ready to combat this as part of parasite die-off symptoms.
Given your odds of picking up parasites, should you rush to test yourself for them? Learn the pros and cons of testing next.
How Are Parasites Diagnosed?
It might be easy for parasites to find you, but it’s not as easy to find them. They do their best to avoid detection.
There are a few different tests that may help check whether you have parasites. But they’re far from 100% accurate. That includes standard stool and blood tests, as well as looking inside your gut with special equipment.
Stool and blood tests
You can submit stool samples to a lab to check if you have intestinal parasites or their eggs (ova). These are called ova and parasite (O&P) tests. A lab technician can use special stains to help detect parasites when viewing your samples under a microscope.
It’s best to provide at least three different stool samples from separate days to reduce the risk of missing parasites. Still, it’s easy for labs to overlook parasites. And the critters simply may not be in the tiny bits of stool that the lab analyzes from the larger samples you submit.
Another way to check for parasites is through blood tests. But there isn’t such a thing as a blood test that checks for every type of parasite. Instead, the tests are used to check for a few specific types of parasites that the doctor suspects you might have.
The blood tests are designed to identify parasites by checking for:
- Antibodies: When you’re infected with a parasite, your immune system makes specific antibodies to fight them. Blood tests can be used to check for antibodies to a small number of parasites. There aren’t tests for every kind, though.
- Visible parasites: Lab staff may look directly at a specially stained blood smear under a microscope. They’re looking for parasites that reside in the blood. For example, plasmodium (the malaria parasite) and babesia may be found in a blood smear test.
Imaging and other tests
Imaging tests such as X-rays, MRI scans, and CAT scans may pick up signs of parasites in your body tissues. The doctor may be looking for something else but could notice parasites in the process.
For example, a swollen liver and spleen could suggest you’re infected with plasmodium. And these scans could show large ascaris worms in your gut.
Another type of test that may reveal parasites is an endoscopy. It involves sending a tiny camera through your digestive tract. It may be used to look for parasites, though it would be an invasive and expensive way to do so.
A newer form of testing can look for parasites’ DNA, such as in your blood or stool. This can be compared with databases of known parasites. Not all parasites can be tested in this way, as the DNA of some parasites hasn’t been analyzed.
With all these different testing methods, you’d think checking for parasites would be straightforward. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
How accurate is parasite testing?
Typical parasite testing is woefully inadequate. Several factors contribute to the likelihood of parasite tests being inaccurate.
Some reasons why your parasite tests might turn up empty despite having an infection are:
- Insufficient training: Is the technician who’s looking at your stool or blood sample highly trained and experienced? The number of truly qualified people to perform these tests is dwindling while the need is going up.
- Shortage of time: Medical labs are often very busy with many tests to complete. If a technician is underqualified and rushed, the risk for errors increases.
- Improper storage: If your specimen isn’t handled correctly, you’re unlikely to get an accurate result. To detect certain parasites in their active stage, your stool sample must be examined within 30–60 minutes after passing it or be put into a preservative. Otherwise, the parasite will disintegrate before it’s found.
- Rapid DNA destruction: Though genetic tests are available to detect parasites in your samples, parasites can destroy their DNA when they die. For example, leishmania rapidly degrades its DNA in almost any death situation. If a sample isn’t appropriately preserved and transported quickly, the test results could be invalid. Samples don’t necessarily reflect all of the critters inside you. Some parasites simply may not be making an exit when you test. For example, they could be hiding in your gut or tissues.
- Insufficient availability: The right tests or equipment may not be available to you. And due to inadequate parasite training for doctors, they may not even know the best tests for you. On top of that, your insurance may not cover the tests.
Functional medicine parasite experts agree there’s one foolproof test for detecting parasites. Take your first two fingers and place them on your other wrist. If you have a pulse, you likely have parasites.
How Do You Treat Parasites Naturally?
The good news is that you can do things to purge parasites, regardless of whether you have an “official” diagnosis. Plus, these strategies could support your health in other ways.
Keep reading to find out what you can do to eliminate parasites naturally, including using dietary support and lifestyle strategies.
Before you start a parasite cleanse, make sure toxins are moving out of your body. You don’t want debris from the critters sticking around in your gut, liver, and kidneys. Expelling toxins requires good drainage.
Some parasites slow the movement of your gut contents — creating constipation. That prevents them from being swept out in your stools. Clever, right? But it creates a buildup of toxins for you. That can increase your symptoms.
Get your colon moving regularly with certain herbs. The goal is to poop two or three times a day during detox.
Also, make sure your kidneys and liver are draining well before getting deep into a parasite cleanse.
Your liver has to process parasites’ toxins so you can get rid of them via your bile. But, some parasitic worms block your bile ducts, which interferes with toxin elimination.
Coffee enemas could also help you release toxin-laden bile.
Several herbs can support liver and kidney function. That gives these organs a helping hand with their clean-up and drainage efforts.
Get rid of parasites with herbs
Send parasites a clear message that you aren’t the gracious host they were anticipating. Taking natural anti-parasitic herbs could send them packing in a hurry.
But don’t let the parasites get too comfortable. Periodically change your herb routine to catch them off guard.
Be prepared for what you might see — or might not see — during your parasite cleanse. Many people see parasitic worms and rubbery strands of rope worm during a cleanse. But you can’t see the majority of parasites without a microscope. So, you may not see anything in your stools. That doesn’t mean what you’re doing isn’t working.
Clean up and repair with binders
Binders are a multipurpose support that can help you in a parasite cleanse.
A binder is like an extreme makeover crew — internal edition. They can latch onto parasite toxins and heavy metals so you can eliminate them in your stools. They can also provide additional support for your body after parasites’ “late-night parties” and other escapades.
Live a healthy lifestyle
Guests will stay longer when they feel welcome to do so. Parasites are a “give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile” kind of houseguest. Make sure the welcome mat is not out for them.
Parasites love sugar. This refined carb is lurking in places you’d least expect, like condiments, flavored instant oatmeal, and nutrition bars. Sugar is definitely on the list of what not to eat when you have a parasite.
Instead, you should reach for healthy foods like grass-fed meat, whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds. You’ll not only be kicking out parasitic freeloaders, but you will also be giving your body what it needs to heal.
Staying hydrated with good, clean water is also essential, as it helps you avoid constipation. If you don’t take in enough fluids, toxins are more likely to get backed up in your colon.
Another part of a healthy lifestyle is regular physical activity. Moving your body — even in simple ways like walking — helps drain your lymphatic system. That’s another place toxins can get backed up, which can lead to symptoms like ankle swelling and puffy eyes during detox.
Lastly, be ready for potential emotional symptoms as you kill off parasites. For example, you could feel down, anxious, or irritable. But natural healing and a positive mindset will help.
Remember, parasitic infections are far more prevalent than you think, even in developed countries. But standard tests are unreliable and often don’t reveal that you have them.
These parasites range from microscopic, single-celled creatures to large worms, visible to the naked eye. No matter their size, they can wreck your health.
Parasites could be the root cause of many of your chronic health issues. Gut problems, food sensitivities, and autoimmune issues may all be traced back to parasites. Tackling the critters could be an essential part of your healing journey.
Certain herbs can help you get rid of the critters naturally. Supporting drainage and detoxification is essential in this effort. And binders do double duty as both a clean-up and repair crew.
Which of your chronic health issues do you think parasites might be triggering? What strategies are you going to use to fight back?
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease and may not reflect opinion of the staff.