What is a Parasite?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A parasite is an organism which exploits another organism for the purpose of staying alive. Some parasitic relationships are harmless, while in other cases a parasite can damage or even kill its host. The study of parasitism is an extensive field, because parasites can be found across the biological kingdoms, and many animals host one or more parasites during their lives. A number of organisms also go through a parasitic stage at some point during their lives.

Human knowledge of parasites was expanded with the development of high-quality microscopes.
Human knowledge of parasites was expanded with the development of high-quality microscopes.

The word is borrowed from the Greek parasitos, meaning “one who eats at the table of someone else.” In both Greece and Rome, some people made dining at the homes of others a full time occupation, sometimes being called “professional dinner guests.” Like biological parasites, these individuals exploited their hosts for food, and they brought nothing to the the table themselves, other than dinner conversation. The existence of parasites has long been known in biology, although the development of high quality microscopes greatly expanded human knowledge of parasites.

Raw meat may contain parasites that can make a person ill if the food is undercooked.
Raw meat may contain parasites that can make a person ill if the food is undercooked.

In order to be considered a parasite, an organism must depend on another for food, energy, or some other service, such as incubating and raising young. In addition, the parasite must bring nothing to the relationship, creating an arrangement which may be neutral or harmful, but never positive. Numerous organisms team up together to exploit their mutual strengths in a biological process called symbiosis—in this case, the arrangement is mutually beneficial to both creatures and it is not considered parasitism.

A parasitic infection may cause skin changes, such as a rash.
A parasitic infection may cause skin changes, such as a rash.

Some well known examples of parasites include mites, tapeworms, mistletoe, and fleas. Parasites live in a number of different ways; some, for example, cannot live once their host dies, while others can switch hosts or continue thriving on dead hosts until their nutrients are consumed. There is some dispute over whether bacteria and viruses should be considered parasites; in medical terms, a parasite is usually a eukaryotic organism, meaning that it has a complex cell structure, unlike a bacterium.

Mistletoe drains energy from its host.
Mistletoe drains energy from its host.

Parasites which live inside a host are called endoparasites or internal parasites. Many human diseases are caused by internal parasites, which may infest the intestinal tract, causing symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting. Various treatments are used for parasitic infection, depending on the organism involved. Ectoparasites live outside the host, and they are generally more capable of switching hosts. When a parasite preys on other parasites, it is known as an epiparasite.

Internal parasites may affect a person's intestinal tract, causing diarrhea and vomiting.
Internal parasites may affect a person's intestinal tract, causing diarrhea and vomiting.
Weight loss may be a symptom of parasites.
Weight loss may be a symptom of parasites.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon934953

I have been fighting intestinal parasites for almost a year. I couldn't get a diagnosis from a gastro doctor, so I decided to use a natural product: food grade diatomaceous earth. I took it for about four months. I got a lot better, but then the die-off symptoms got so bad I discontinued it. I kept seeing dead worms after that. I thought the problem was taken care of. Now I am sicker than before.

Now, in addition to the parasites, I now have pernicious anemia. I went to another gastro doctor this last week. She is going to have me tested and plans to do a colonoscopy, which the other doctor refused to do. I am so sick, and I need immediate help. Now.

Renegade

@JavaGhoul

Intestinal parasites can cause unhealthy weight loss, and sometimes people who are unaware of this think that it is a good weight loss plan. The truth is, intestinal parasites are difficult to deal with, and may feed off of their hosts for a long time. This is not symbiosis, or mutually beneficial, but destructive to the host.

JavaGhoul

Intestinal parasites can be transmitted by consuming foods which are rotten or ingesting dirt of some sort. Children who are prone to bite their nails when dirty may be at risk for being infected with intestinal parasites.

anon26417

how do you get this disease

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