One of the most common fears among travelers to developing world countries is that they have (or will acquire) an intestinal parasite. This is in part because parasites can have vague symptoms, or none at all.
In this post, we will talk about some of the more common parasites, their symptoms, and how to go about a proper diagnosis.
Do I have a parasite?
Before we can even address the question, we should first offer a working definition of parasites.
For our purposes, a parasite is something living on or in your body, which gets something from you at your expense.
Intestinal parasites are arguably the most common, but there are other kinds of parasites that can be more free-roaming within the body (see guinea worm). If you want to go down the rabbit hole of human parasites, feel free to have a look at this list on wikipedia.
The problem with parasites is that they can be difficult to diagnose. Some parasites can be asymptomatic. Others can produce vague symptoms that can easily be confused with those of other conditions. Keeping these facts in mind, here are a few things to consider:
1. Many parasites are rare depending on where you are. If you are having a panic attack over what you think is a parasite infestation, think about where you are and where you have been for the past 6-12 months. While it’s true that parasites technically exist just about everywhere, they are more common in some places than others. Know for a fact that you drank river water a couple of months ago? It’s possible that you have giardia.
2. Look for distinguishing symptoms. Some parasites can linger in the background. Others may make themselves known with distinct symptoms. For example, amoebic dysentery can produce blood in the stool. Giardia can cause burps to have a sulfur smell to them (sounds great, right?). These distinct symptoms can be a red flag for certain parasites.
3. Alternatively, look for symptoms that are ongoing or come and go sporadically. If you find yourself feeling lethargic much of the time, if you have lost weight for no explainable reason, if you are experiencing ongoing diarrhea or abdominal pains — all of these conditions could be signs of a parasite.
4. See a doctor and be sure to disclose everything. Your doctor will probably ask you anyway, but try to remember (in as much detail as possible) where exactly you’ve been and what you’ve been doing over the past 6-12 months. If you spent considerable time in the wilderness or if you’ve been traveling in developing world countries, your odds of having a parasite could be significantly higher. Your doctor will likely give a complete physical, but you should also insist on a stool test, which can be used to pinpoint certain intestinal parasites.
5. Keep in mind that many symptoms that are associated with parasites could be caused by something else. I had a friend who once insisted that they had a worm infestation in their gut. They had constant diarrhea, abdominal cramps and sometimes many other symptoms that simply would not let up. When they finally went to the doctor for a diagnosis, they found out that they had Celiac disease, which is essentially an allergy to gluten. All of this is to say that you may have a parasite, but it could just as likely be something else.
As most of our articles do, this one will close with the simple recommendation to go to a doctor if you are worried that you actually have a parasite. Self-diagnosis via the internet can often lead to stress more than anything else and you may find yourself in a fit of paranoia after doing so. Go to your doctor, explain your story, disclose everything, and insist on extensive testing if the doctor has not already called for it.
Photo credit: Wikipedia