Intestinal parasites are parasites that can infect the gastro-intestinal tract of humans and other animals. They can live throughout the body, but most prefer the intestinal wall. Means of exposure include: ingestion of undercooked meat, drinking infected water, and skin absorption. The two main types of intestinal parasites are those helminths and protozoa that reside in the intestines (not all helminths and protozoa are intestinal parasites). An intestinal parasite can damage or sicken its host via an infection which is called helminthiasis in the case of helminths.
Signs and symptoms
These depend on the type of infection.
The major groups of parasites include protozoans (organisms having only one cell) and parasitic worms (helminths). Of these, protozoans, including cryptosporidium, microsporidia, and isospora, are most common in HIV-infected persons. Each of these parasites can infect the digestive tract, and sometimes two or more can cause infection at the same time.
Parasites can get into the intestine by going through the mouth from uncooked or unwashed food, contaminated water or hands, or by skin contact with larva infected soil, they can also be transferred by the sexual act of anilingus in some cases. When the organisms are swallowed, they move into the intestine, where they can reproduce and cause symptoms. Children are particularly susceptible if they are not thoroughly cleaned after coming into contact with infected soil that is present in environments that they may frequently visit such as sandboxes and school playgrounds. People in developing countries are also at particular risk due to drinking water from sources that may be contaminated with parasites that colonize the gastrointestinal tract.
Due to the wide variety of intestinal parasites, a description of the symptoms rarely is sufficient for diagnosis. Instead, two common tests are used: stool samples may be collected to search for the parasites, and an adhesive may be applied to the anus in order to search for eggs.
See also: Helminthiasis for treatment of infection with helminths
Drugs are frequently used to kill parasites in the host. In earlier times, turpentine was often used for this, but modern drugs do not poison intestinal worms directly. Rather, antihelminthics now inhibit an enzyme that is necessary for the worm to make the substance that prevents the worm from being digested.
Good hygiene is necessary to avoid reinfection. The Rockefeller Foundation's hookworm campaign in Mexico in the 1920s was extremely effective at eliminating hookworm from humans with the use of antihelminthics. However, preventative measures were not adequately introduced to the people that were treated. Therefore, the rate of reinfection was extremely high and the project evaluated through any sort of scientific method was a marked failure. More education was needed to inform the people of the importance of wearing shoes, using latrines (better access to sanitation), and good hygiene.
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