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June 20, 2018  |  Login
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Surprising Fact: Approximately 25 percent of the world's population is infected with hookworms


Surprising Fact: It is estimated that more than 1 billion people are infected with ascariasis worldwide, of whom 20,000 die each year


Microorganisms naturally inhabit and move through the body. Some are harmless, while others cause sickness. Infections can occur when parasites make their homes in your skin, gastrointestinal tract, lungs, liver, and other organs. Parasites require a host (e.g., human cells) to live and thrive.

Parasitic infections were once thought of as a problem that existed mainly in underdeveloped countries. After all, diarrheal disease (from parasites and bacteria) is the greatest worldwide cause of death. Global travel has been a major contributor to the spread of parasitic infections in North America. Contaminated water and food are also major contributors. In addition, better diagnostic techniques have provided a more accurate identification of parasites and have led researchers to conclude that parasitic infections are much more common than previously thought. One laboratory that specializes in stool analysis states "almost 30 percent of specimens examined are positive for a parasite."

Diarrhea and abdominal pain are the most common symptoms of a parasitic infection. However, in many cases of a parasite infection, these symptoms may not be present. A whole list of symptoms and conditions could be related to a parasitic infection. Examples include loss of appetite, fatigue, constipation, depressed immunity, food allergy, fever, chills, heartburn, stomach pain, inflammatory bowel disease, lower back pain, itchy anus, rash and skin itching, hives, weight loss, arthritis, bloody stools, mucus in the stool, colitis, Crohn's disease, flatulence, foul-smelling stools, malabsorption, rectal bleeding, mood changes (depression, irritability), and vomiting.

Parasites interfere with the normal activities of the cells they infect, which may lead to symptoms and disease. The secretions released by a parasite can trigger a bodily response in which the immune system attacks its own tissues. This is known as an autoimmune reaction. Examples include rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease. Not all parasites are necessarily harmful. Some parasites live symbiotically in the digestive tract. It is thought that certain parasites become a problem only when the environment of the body changes. For example, dysbiosis-the imbalance between friendly and potentially harmful bacteria in the digestive tract-can lead to certain parasites becoming pathogenic (disease causing). The nutritional status of a person, as well as a compromised immune system, dictates whether a parasite can become a problem.

Parasites are commonly transmitted through food that is contaminated with fecal matter (e.g., from food preparers who do not wash their hands after going to the restroom), waste, and the water supply.

There are many different types of parasites. Following are some of the more common ones in North America. more

Next: What are the Symptoms of Parasites

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