Parasites inside the human body often sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. But the reality is it’s a lot more common than you think.

The fact that intestinal parasites occur at unacceptably high levels throughout South Africa is jarring considering both the “ick” factor and the health consequences.

A parasite is an organism that lives in or on another organism, and in the process harms this organism. It cannot live, grow, and multiply without the host and for this reason, it rarely kills the host. But it can spread diseases, and some of these can be fatal. However, regardless of the severity, parasites always gross us out. Tapeworms, ringworms, hookworms and pinworms …. could be something you’ll joke about if you’re having stomach issues, but this is no laughing matter.

Oh, and if you think that parasites were the kind of thing you could only pick up while travelling abroad, think again. Humans can get infected by ingesting a parasite or its larvae (eggs) found in faecal contaminated food and water.

Another way is by ingesting the parasite larvae found in undercooked meats like pork or raw fish. And, sometimes, certain parasites have the ability to directly penetrate bare human skin when you come into contact with faecal contaminated soil or water. So yes, all of these are just as likely to happen at home, or while you’re beach hopping in Thailand!

The scary thing is that once a person is infected with an intestinal parasite, it’s easy to pass it along. If you have an intestinal parasite and don’t wash your hands after using the restroom, you could easily pass tiny parasite eggs onto anything you touch – the door handle, salt shaker, your phone, or other people.

So, how do you know whether you have a nasty parasite, or a stomach bug?  This can be difficult to determine keeping in mind that some parasites can live in the human body for months or years without causing any symptoms.

General symptoms may vary widely and sometimes it may resemble the symptoms of other conditions such as, for example, food poisoning. However, most parasite infections share a number of similar symptoms including diarrhea, abdominal cramping or pain, nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite, fatigue, unexplained skin irritation, cough, and unintentional weight loss.

Pretty broad, right? The key in determining a parasite source is the combination of symptoms and the duration of these symptoms.

How can parasite infections be prevented? There are several steps you can take to lower your risk of contracting a parasite infection:

  • Practise safe sex, using a condom.
  • Wash your hands regularly, especially after handling uncooked food or faeces.
  • Cook food to its recommended temperature.
  • Drink clean water, including bottled water when you travel.
  • Avoid swallowing water from lakes, streams or ponds.

If you’ve noticed any of these symptoms and you’ve recently travelled abroad, came into contact with unclean animals, or have eaten something that could have been contaminated - and can’t come up with any other reason for your symptoms - get yourself to a primary care doctor or gastroenterologist ASAP.


DISCLAIMER: The information on this website is for educational purposes only, and is not intended as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms or need health advice, please consult a healthcare professional.