The idea of a parasite might conjure up images in your head of a television show set in a hospital with some creepy consequences. But chances are, if you eat adventurously or have pets, you're much more likely to be at risk for parasites than you realize. Luckily, the
signs of a parasite are pretty concrete, and make looking out for a parasitic infection all that much easier.
Parasites, and the illnesses they cause, can be a bit tricky to understand. First, knowing what a parasite is and why it can be potentially harmful is a good way to look out for your health. "A parasite is an organism that lives in or on another organism, called the host, causing it harm by either feeding on it or consuming some of its food, thus benefiting by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense,"
Ross University School of Veterinarian Medicine’s Associate Dean for Research and Postgraduate Studies Dr. Arve Lee Willingham, BSc, DVM, PhD, tells Bustle. And, in humans, this can cause a wide variety of symptoms.
Some parasites cause more mild issues, while some can be life-threatening. Doctors want you to understand the difference. "Please see a doctor immediately if you have been exposed to dog or cat feces, or may have eaten undercooked food and are experiencing diarrhea or other stomach problems, or are experiencing weakness of an arm or leg," neurosurgeon
Darlene Mayo, M.D., tells Bustle. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), dog parks can be particularly risky when it comes to catching a parasite. Knowing the risks are also vital.
Here are nine physical and mental symptoms that could be a sign of a parasite, according to experts.
While seizures can be caused by a variety of
illnesses and conditions, one possibility if you're experiencing a sudden onset of seizures and don't know where they're from, is that you have a parasite.
"Almost all parasitic infections involving the human brain can be associated with
seizures and epilepsy," Dr. Willingham says. So if you're talking to your doctor about diagnostics, asking about parasites is reasonable. Lymphatic Filariasis is a tropical parasitic disease caused by nematode worms, and is also known as elephantiasis.
"[This parasite] can cause limb and genital swelling due to obstruction of lymphatic vessels," Dr. Willingham says. The
World Health Organization (WHO) states that the majority of people with this disease are asymptomatic, and that you cannot get infected with this disease within the United States. But if you have recently lived abroad for a long period of time in a tropical climate, and are now experiencing swelling, going to a doctor is key.
Hookworm is another parasite that is less-than common in the United States, but still worth understanding the symptoms of if you lived or travelled abroad. And in a recent report from
National Public Radio (NPR), experts found that hookworm does still persist in the United States, especially in poorer areas, despite earlier reports that it had been eliminated.
"Hookworm eggs are found in feces from other infected humans and when a barefoot individual comes into contact with hatched eggs in contaminated soil, they can become infected," board-certified infectious disease physician
Dr. Amesh A. Adalja tells Bustle. "This penetrative action by the worm larvae can sometimes cause an itchy rash that corresponds to where the worm larvae are migrating and the immune response to it." If you have these symptoms after having been outside barefoot, it's worth bringing up with a doctor. Luckily hookworm is easily curable.
Inflamed Skin On Your Fingers
Scabies is a parasite that is actually quite common in the United States. According to the
Center For Disease Control (CDC), scabies is found worldwide among people of all ages and classes, and is simply transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, or, sometimes, contact with towels or sheets from an infected person.
If you're concerned about scabies, you can start by looking at your hands. "Scabies is caused by an ectoparasite that lives in the superficial layers of the skin," Dr. Adalja says. "The scabies mite lives in tiny burrows in the webs of the finger and when present can trigger an intense itch as the the immune system reacts to their presence. The skin in those areas can also be red, cracked, and inflamed." If you have noticed these symptoms, call your doctor.
Treatment is relatively simple with either creams or lotions.
If you like crab or crayfish, then a chronic cough might be more serious than you anticipated. According to the CDC,
paragonimiasis has happened in the United States, particularly in the Midwest. This parasite lives in the lungs.
"Paragonimiasis, the lung fluke people and animals can get from eating the intermediate host crabs, can cause chronic cough with blood-stained sputum, chest pain with breathing problems and fever, [or] fluid or air in the chest cavity," Dr. Willingham says. So if you have these notable, painful symptoms, it might be worth it to talk to your doctor about the possibility of having acquired a parasite.
Unlike some of these other symptoms,
digestive problems are a parasite symptom that exist across a large variety of diagnoses. Tapeworm, roundworm, and other parasites can cause all sorts of stomach and bowel upsets.
Tapeworm is one of the
more talked about parasitic infections that happens in the United States. According to the Mayo Clinic, you can get tapeworm from contaminated food or water, and the symptoms include a lot of intestinal issues. "Tapeworm infections can cause digestive problems including abdominal pain, loss of appetite, weight loss, and upset stomach," Dr. Willingham says. Likewise, roundworm ( strongyloidiasis) can have similar implications. If you are experiencing these symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Another disease you may get traveling and should look out for symptoms of is malaria. According to the
CDC, this mosquito-borne illness is actually caused by a parasite.
"Malaria, a protozoal infection of the blood, can result in a fever and chills, which can be accompanied by headache, muscle and joint pain, weakness, vomiting, and diarrhea," Dr. Willingham says. "Other clinical features can include enlargement of the spleen, anemia, low platelet count, low blood sugar, lung or kidney dysfunction, and neurologic changes." If you're recently been abroad, and have flu-like symptoms but no flu, you may want to ask about malaria.
Toxoplasmosis is shockingly common, found in over 40 million people in the United States alone
according to the CDC. And while most people never experience symptoms, if you're pregnant or immunocompromised, it's quite possible that acute eye symptoms could be caused having eaten contaminated foods containing this parasite.
"Toxoplasmosis can cause eye pain, sensitivity to light, blurred vision and blindness due to retinal damage," Dr. Willingham says. So be careful around
unwashed fruits and vegetables, and always wash your knives and utensils in hot, soapy water. Your eyes (and everything else) will thank you.
Mental Health Conditions
Another thing to understand about parasites, and health issues in general, is that they often intertwine. While a lot of physical symptoms have physical causes, and mental symptoms may have mental causes, sometimes the two overlap.
"If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia, you may want to ask your doctor to run tests for parasites, which may include blood and stool samples," Dr. Mayo says. "Many parasitic infections can be treated with medications, which can lead to a partial or full recovery.” So if you're seeking mental health treatment, it's vital to also have a primary care physician to make sure your physical health is in order as well.
Whether or not you travel or have any pre-existing health conditions, being infected with a parasite is still a risk. While you can do things like wearing closed-toed shoes at the dog park, cleaning your kitchen, and only eating trustworthy food, you may still encounter one of these infections one day. In the meantime, while you're healthy, it's important to know the signs.