Anyone who has ever been sick with giardiasis will never forget the experience. Giardiasis is an intestinal illness that is caused by a common parasite, Giardia intestinalis. The microscopic parasite can be found in almost every country, including the United States. It lives inside the intestine of its host and is passed through the host’s feces. One of the main problems with Giardia is that it has a protective shell that lets it live outside the host body, in the environment, for months.
With the Giardia parasite being so common, one may wonder how they can become infected with giardiasis. As stated above, Giardia lives in the intestine of both people and animals. Most people become infected when they accidentally swallow parasite-infected water or ingest the parasite on contaminated surfaces. For example, a person may touch a bathroom door handle, changing table, or toy, where there is feces from an infected person unknowingly on the surface. Next, the person eats or puts her hands in her mouth and ingests the parasite – contracting giardiasis.
There are plenty of other ways a person can contract giardiasis. For example, a hiker may come upon a pristine lake, a mountain stream, or a shallow water-well. Although the stream may look crystal clear, if the feces from an infected animal or person is in the water, she will contract giardiasis. In addition, if ice is made from a contaminated source of water, the Giardia parasite may be present. Even recreational water is not safe: swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, and fountains can all be contaminated with feces that has the Giardia parasite – and thereby cause giardiasis.
The symptoms of giardiasis are clear and unforgettable. Diarrhea, gas, bloating, extreme abdominal cramps, nausea, and floating stools are all signs of the infection. If the symptoms are not treated, extreme dehydration and weight loss can occur. Once the person becomes infected with the Giardia parasite, it can anywhere from seven days to two weeks before the symptoms appear. The symptoms can linger from two to six weeks – and sometimes longer. Luckily, some medications can lower the length of time that the person is affected by the symptoms.
If a person thinks they have giardiasis, they may submit a stool sample to their doctor. A laboratory will test the sample to see if the Giardia parasite is present. Once diagnosed with giardiasis, there are prescription drugs that help treat the infection. However, the main concern with the infection is dehydration. Consequently, drinking plenty of liquids will help replenish the fluids lost from the extreme diarrhea during the course of the infection.