Even though the thought of having a parasite is pretty unpleasant, parasites are far more common than you might think. We actually see quite a few cases of them here at Westchester Health. Not restricted to underdeveloped countries, parasites exist around the world and can afflict anyone of any race, gender or socioeconomic status. They can cause a myriad of symptoms, only a few of which affect the digestive tract, but the good news is that yes, they are treatable.
What is a parasite?
A parasite is any organism that lives and feeds off another organism. Examples of parasites include:
Because parasites come in so many different shapes and sizes, they can cause a very wide range of problems. Some consume your food (from inside your body), leaving you hungry after every meal and unable to gain weight. Others feed off your red blood cells, causing anemia. Some lay eggs that can cause itching, irritability and even insomnia.
How do you get parasites?
There are a number of ways to contract a parasite. Here are the most common causes:
- contaminated food and water
- undercooked meat
- contaminated water
- unclean or contaminated fruits and vegetables
- the bottom of your foot
Once a person is infected with a parasite, it’s very easy to pass it along. If you have a parasite and don’t wash your hands after using the restroom, you can easily pass microscopic parasite eggs onto anything you touch: the bathroom door handle, salt shaker, your phone or anyone you touch. Traveling overseas is another way that foreign parasites can be introduced to your system. It’s also very easy to contract a parasite when handling animals.
10 signs that may mean you have a parasite
The signs of a parasite are often caused by the toxins that it releases into the human bloodstream. Here are the most common symptoms:
- Unexplained constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, nausea or other symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- You traveled internationally and got diarrhea on your trip
- You have had food poisoning and your digestion has not been the same since
- You have trouble falling asleep or you wake up multiple times during the night
- Skin irritations or unexplained rashes, hives, rosacea or eczema
- You grind your teeth in your sleep
- Painful, aching muscles or joints
- Fatigue, exhaustion, mood changes, depression or frequent feelings of apathy
- You never feel satisfied or full after your meals
- You’ve been diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia
How to test for parasites
The best way to test for a parasite is to get a stool test. Most doctors will run a conventional stool test if they suspect a parasite.
- Drug therapies. Your doctor will choose the drug that is most effective for your particular parasite. You may need just one dose or you may have to take the medication for several weeks. Be sure to take the medicine exactly as it is prescribed or it may not work.
- Complementary and alternative therapies. Conventional medical treatments can get rid of parasites more quickly and with fewer side effects than most alternative treatments. Yet, alternative treatments may be helpful alongside conventional medications. However, your doctor must find out what kind of organism is causing your problems before you start treatment.
- Nutritional guidelines to help keep parasites from growing:
- Avoid simple carbohydrates, such as those found in refined foods, fruits, juices, dairy products, and all sugars, except honey.
- Eat raw garlic, pumpkin seeds, pomegranates, beets and carrots, all of which have been used traditionally to kill parasites.
- Drink a lot of water to help flush out your system.
- Eat fiber, which may help get rid of worms.
- Probiotics (Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacilus plantarum, Saccharomyces boulardii and bifidobacteria) help keep your digestive tract healthy but they may not be appropriate in some severely immune compromised patients.
- Digestive enzymes will help restore your intestinal tract to its normal state, which makes it inhospitable to parasites.
- Vitamin C supports the immune system. Lower the dose if diarrhea develops.
- Zinc supports the immune system but may interact with certain medications, particularly some antibiotics, and it may not be appropriate for people with HIV/AIDS.
- Herbs are a proven, effective way to strengthen the body’s systems. As with any therapy, you should work with your doctor to diagnose your problem before starting treatment. You can take herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders or teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts).
Worried that you may have a parasite? Please come see us.
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed above and think you may have a parasite, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health gastroenterologists. The sooner we can test for parasites, identify which type you have and start treating you, the sooner you can start to feel better. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By Elie M. Abemayor, MD, Sc.M., a gastroenterologist with Westchester Health, member of Westchester Health Physician Partners