Intestinal Parasites: Fact vs. Fiction

Medically reviewed by: Eiman Firoozmand, MD

If Internet lore and pop science are to be believed, many of us have entire colonies of parasites making dinner out of our gastrointestinal tract. According to those who follow this belief, most people have worms, amoeba, and protozoa wreaking havoc in their intestines, stealing their nutrition, and leaving behind scores of waste that isn’t eliminated with normal bowel movements. They blame almost any ailment of the digestive tract on these parasites, from inflammatory bowel diseases to malabsorption syndromes.

In truth, parasites do exist and they could be living in your body right now. However, they are rare in healthy adults who practice good hygiene habits and live in areas with modern sanitation standards. And if you or your child does have a parasite, your doctor can diagnose it quickly and offer a safe and effective treatment.

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What Are The Facts About Intestinal Parasites?

Parasites can and do prey on humans. Parasites are the reason there are bold warnings against eating raw pork and why your friends tell you not to drink the water in Mexico. Either of these parasites can cause gastrointestinal upset and dehydration, and even land you in the hospital.

There are two primary types of intestinal parasites people could get in the United States: helminths or protozoa. Helminths are the worms you’ve probably all heard about. Roundworms, pinworms, and tapeworms are all relatively common among children and in areas that lack modern sanitation. The two most common protozoa we see in the United States are giardia and cryptosporidium.

Still, they’re rare for healthy adults who practice good sanitation and hygiene habits.

When we do see parasites, they are usually in children, the elderly, or those with compromised immune systems. They get infected with these parasites after encountering them in feces, often through contaminated food, water, or dirt or in a sandbox at school .

Parasites can cause a number of health issues, mostly related to the digestive system. Most commonly, they cause only itching around the anus. Many people have no symptoms but pass a worm in their stool. Other symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas or bloating
  • Feeding tire
  • Unexplained weight loss

Treating Intestinal Parasites with Pop Science

Those who believe intestinal parasites are causing a large portion of the population to suffer gastrointestinal issues also have a variety of treatments to rid you of the worms or protozoa they claim live off your digested food. This includes everything from a relatively healthy diet of green vegetables and green smoothies to drinking turpentine and castor oil. They like garlic. They really, really like garlic.

The social media and Internet bulletin boards receptive to this type of “junk science” are full of parents looking to deworm their children, pictures of what ends up in their toilet, and other posts that can only be explained as “TMI.” They perform colon cleanses and discuss the results. They feed their children Diatomaceous Earth and they juice black walnut hulls. Turmeric solutions are popular. One anti-parasite elixir is made by boiling two crushed garlic pods in milk and drinking it every day. Another promises to rid you of parasites if you eat three cloves of raw garlic first thing in the morning.

Some of these “alternative therapies” are unlikely to hurt you – and others could be deadly – but none of them will take care of the parasites if you actually have any. With little benefit, there is no reason you need to eat an excessive amount of garlic on an empty stomach unless you like the taste.

What Should I Do If I Think I Have a Parasite?

Unless you have one or more of the risk factors we discussed previously, it is unlikely you suffer from parasites. However, a parasitic infection is possible if you have immune system issues or if you have recently travelled outside of the United States. If you have concerns, talk to your doctor. They can test to see if you do have a parasite and treat you with a safe and effective medication.

One of the first questions your doctor will ask is if you have traveled to another country or to an area with poor sanitation practices. Drinking the water or eating poorly prepared foods in another country are one of the most common ways people living in the United States contract parasites. Your doctor will also ask a number of other questions and determine if they believe you may have parasites.

There are two primary tests they will use to determine what, if anything, is living in your gastrointestinal tract.

  • The tape test: This test uses a piece of clear tape to collect a sample from outside the anus. We can then look at this under a microscope to identify what type of parasite it is; most commonly  pinworms in children.
  • Stool sample testing: This type of test can identify almost any type of parasite, and is often used to ensure we give the right drug to the patient.

When we do discover parasites, the treatment is usually simple and very effective. We prescribe pills to target the specific parasite in question, and they clear up the issue within a few weeks.

But the most important first step is to consult your physician.

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