Parasite infection needs proper care, not fad diet

Exam room discussing treatments

Dear Doctors: A co-worker is doing something called a parasite cleanse. She says if you have symptoms like gas, muscle aches, insomnia and feel hungry all the time, it means you have parasites. How would you get parasites, and how would you know? Does a cleanse really help?

Dear Reader: As with many odd and sometimes dubious health trends, you need look no further than social media for the popularity of the so-called “parasite cleanse” that your co-worker is following.

While the specifics of these cleanses can vary depending on the source, they typically focus on a cocktail of supplements that are supposed to clear the infection. To better understand the issue, we should begin by talking about parasites.

A parasite is an organism that lives on or within the blood, tissues or intestines of a host. It gets its food from the host, often at the expense of the host's health and well-being.

External parasites -- such as ticks, lice or mites -- are known as ectoparasites. In this case, though, we are talking about human intestinal parasites. These are divided into two categories: protozoa and helminths. Protozoa are one-celled organisms that are able to multiply within the host. Helminths are multi-celled organisms that fall into three main groups: tapeworms, roundworms and thorny-headed worms. While adult helminths do not proliferate in the intestines, they can produce eggs that are excreted in the host's feces.

The most common method of transmission of intestinal parasites is eating or drinking something that has been contaminated with feces from an infected individual. Helminth infections can also be acquired from soil in which infected feces is present. Helminth eggs can attach to produce and can be ingested in contaminated water. During a certain part of their life cycle, hookworms can actively penetrate skin. Contact with contaminated soil can result in infection. Living in a subtropical or tropical region, living with poor sanitation systems, having poor personal hygiene and lacking access to clean water increases the risk of acquiring a parasitic infection.

Symptoms of parasite infection can include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, anal itching, unexplained weight loss and exhaustion. However, these are common to a number of other conditions.

Just because someone experiences these symptoms does not automatically mean they have a parasitic infection. To determine that, and to learn the source of a potential infection, you need a medical diagnosis. This begins with a review of symptoms, information about recent travel and details about possible dietary exposure, such as eating uncooked meat or fish, or drinking so-called raw water, which has not been filtered or treated. If parasites are suspected, laboratory tests to analyze stool or blood will be used. When parasites are found, drug therapies specific to the infection are prescribed.

There is evidence that some of the ingredients commonly used in a parasite cleanse, such as wormwood, can be helpful. However, when symptoms and risk factors indicate a parasitic infection, a medical diagnosis, along with targeted treatment, are the best way forward. A parasitic infection can cause considerable harm and needs to receive proper treatment.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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