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What is the Deal with Hookworm?

hookworm prevention and treatment
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Worms inspire a special fear in people and hookworm sounds particularly awful. If you break the word down into two parts, it doesn’t take long to realize that you want neither a hook or a worm inside your body.

The disease is so-called because hookworms do in fact have tiny hooks around their mouth that allow them to better attach to the intestinal walls. If this is already too much, you might want to stop reading – or skip to the end to read about prevention and treatment.

How hookworm works

1. A hookworm living in someone’s small intestine hatches eggs.
2. These eggs are excreted in said person’s feces.
3. If the person has gone to the bathroom outside somewhere (read: not in a toilet), the eggs will hatch and larvae will emerge.
4. These larvae can penetrate human skin and they will typically enter the body through the foot (flash forward to our prevention section: don’t walk barefoot where people have taken a crap!)
5. The larvae then move through the bloodstream to get to the lungs.
6. Once in the lungs, the larvae hang out for a bit and then typically cause you to cough violently, to the point that the larvae are actually ejected from the lungs.
7. It would be nice if you coughed up the larvae and were able to spit them out, but they quickly shoot down the other hatch and work their way towards your small intestine.
8. It’s at this point where they reach the prime of their life, clinging to the walls of your intestine, sucking on your blood and producing eggs, which you will poop out, possibly transferring hookworm to someone else.
9. Untreated, the hookworm will likely stick around for a year or so.

Ahhhhhhh!!

Do you want this in your small intestine?

Signs and symptoms

Many people infected with hookworm experience no symptoms, and often, the symptoms that do manifest are mild. That said, many people can experience symptoms similar to traveler’s diarrhea. In instances of extreme infection, some may experience nausea, vomiting, fever and coughing.

Also, it is highly possible that you will experience a rash, itching and possibly worse at the site of entry, which is almost always on the foot.

Finally, the heaviest consequences of hookworm infection are usually iron and protein deficiencies that develop over time. Anemia can occur and those infected will often start experiencing fatigue, lightheadedness and possibly shortness of breath and palpitations.

Treatment

In healthy adults, hookworm is rarely fatal. That said, it can lead to complications and severe infection can be truly miserable. There is also that whole disconcerting worm feeding on your insides thing that may inspire treatment as well.

Thankfully, there is treatment. Diagnosis usually involves a blood count and a stool examination. If diagnosed with the disease, an anti-parasite medication like albendazole or mebendazole is usually prescribed. This will effectively kill off the hookworm.

Be sure to see an actual doctor for diagnosis and treatment. There are many people who self-diagnose themselves with a worm because they have vague symptoms like lethargy. This could be for any number of reasons, however, and you need to make sure you get an official diagnosis.

Prevention

Theoretically, hookworm is one of the easiest diseases to prevent. You don’t have to ward off mosquitoes or other insects and you don’t have to worry about whether the water is clean to drink or to swim in. You just need to wear shoes when walking around areas where people have defecated. Or better yet, don’t walk in those areas at all!

Hookworm primarily thrives in tropical developing world areas where access to proper latrines and sanitation systems is limited. You can only get it from exposing your skin to contaminated soil. That said, there are an estimated 576-740 million people infected with hookworm around the world! (according to the CDC)

Even if you get all the travel immunizations in the world, they are not going to replace basic common sense.

If you haven’t had enough of a look at one of nature’s creepier crawlies in this post, check out our article on 7 small organisms that can mess you up.

Finally, for some interesting reading, have a look at this article on how hookworm may help with treatment of allergies and things like asthma: The cure for your allergy: a hookworm

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Katrina April 20, 2012, 1:12 pm

    Gaaahhh! The stuff of nightmares! But thank you for keeping us aware and healthy. 🙂

  • Lauren April 23, 2012, 9:39 am

    …So now I’m terrified.

    • phil April 24, 2012, 3:27 am

      The good news is that all you have to do to avoid it is not walk around barefoot where people have taken a crap.

  • Travelogged April 30, 2012, 9:52 pm

    I am sufficiently grossed out, but you did a great job explaining it 🙂

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