What is it?
This is a parasite that causes disease of the gastrointestinal tract. It can infect and multiply in the cells of the GI or respiratory tract. It is one of the most common parasitic infections in humans. It can also infect many animals including mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish. There are about 20 different types of Cryptosporidium.
Who gets it?
Cryptosporidium has been identified in every continent but Antarctica. It is more commonly in areas that have crowding and poor sanitation and becomes more prevalent during the rainy periods. It can impact any age group but is often seen in children under two years old. It is more common in dairy farmers, likely because cows can carry the infection. People with HIV are more often infected.
Why does it happen?
You can get Cryptosporidium from a person or animal that is infected, by eating contaminated food, and from drinking or swimming in a water source that has been contaminated with infected fecal material. Certain strains of the parasite are more common with exposure to foreign travel or day-care centers. Other strains have farm animal contact as their origin. The infectious form of the parasite ingested is called an oocyst, and right away it can cause disease. Eating only 10-
50 oocysts can lead to a significant illness. This is important because an infected person can excrete up to a billion oocysts per infection. The oocysts are hard to get rid of because they are not killed by many disinfectants and many filtration systems do not clear them. They can survive for months.
This parasite causes diarrhea and malabsorption of nutrients. Once inside the GI tract, it can spread to the biliary system (the ducts that transport bile in the liver and gallbladder) causing narrowing of the ducts or inflammation.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms are variable and can range from no symptoms to severe illness. After being infected, a person typically does not have symptoms for 7-10 days, though it can be as many as 28 days later. Symptoms may include:
- Diarrhea- this can be very variable; ranging from brief to long-term; continuous or episodic; small or large amounts. Usually, there are no red blood or white blood cells present in the stool unless there is another infection also.
- Lack of appetite
- Crampy abdominal pain, or abdominal pain in the right upper side of your abdomen
- Low-grade fever
- Weight loss
How is it diagnosed?
Blood work may be ordered, but this parasite is diagnosed by identifying the oocysts in stool or body tissues.
How is it treated?
Without treatment, this infection typically improves in 10-14 days, if you are an otherwise healthy person. Less commonly, it can last longer or symptoms can return. Even after symptoms improve, you can still be infectious and have oocysts present in your bowel movements. If you have a condition that weakens your immune system, it can be a very serious illness.
If therapy is required, nitazoxanide is often used. It works by blocking the growth of sporozoites and oocysts.
What can I do?
To prevent infection with or spread of this parasite there are several things to do:
- Wash hands
- Dispose of contaminated material
- People with a weakened immune system should limit exposure to water from lakes, streams, and public swimming pools
As discussed, it is very hard to rid this parasite in the environment but it can be killed with freezing, boiling, or high concentrations of ammonia or formalin.
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