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Cryptosporidium Infection (Cryptosporidiosis): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Cryptosporidium infection, also known as cryptosporidiosis is a sickness caused by one-celled, microscopic cryptosporidium parasites. When cryptosporidia invade the body, it moves to the small intestine where it hides in the lining of the walls of the small intestine and then multiplies massively and excreted with fecal matter.

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When this infection occurs in healthy people, it causes a stint of myxoid diarrhea. The infection, in most cases, goes away within a period of a week or two.

Except in the case of a person with a compromised immune system; this infection can become life-threatening without treatment.

The cryptosporidium infection can be prevented by various practices of good hygiene and avoiding intakes of untreated water from streams, lakes, etc.

What is Cryptosporidium?

Cryptosporidiosis in humans is caused by protozoa. This illness was considered to be caused by one species, but recent studies have shown that it can be caused by at least 15 different species.

Among the common species are cryptosporidium hominis which affects only humans, and Cryptosporidium parvum which can affect a range of mammals, which includes humans, while Cryptosporidiosis mainly infects children.

Cryptosporidium infection can cause a range of diarrheal illnesses, which can be self-limiting in healthy adults. Although it can be recognized as a cause of persistent and continuous diarrhea in children also, which can oftentimes result in malnourishment.

Cryptosporidiosis can materialize as ceaseless and relentless diarrhea in persons with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) or AIDS (Acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

Causes

A person can be infected by Cryptosporidium infection when the single-celled protozoan cryptosporidium enters into the body, usually through the mouth. Some species of cryptosporidium can cause more high-risk diseases.

These microorganisms can then move to the intestinal tract, where they enter into the linings of the small intestines.

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Consequently, more cells are produced serially and excreted with feces, where they are highly contagious.

A person can become infected with cryptosporidia by touching things that have come in contact with contaminated fecal matter. One can also contract this parasite by:

  • Drinking contaminated water, Swimming, and other related activities in contaminated water bodies that contain the cryptosporidium parasites.
  • Eating uncooked food contaminated by cryptosporidia
  • Touching contaminated hand, to the mouth, especially when the hand has been in contact with contaminated surfaces, objects, persons, or animals.
  • If a person has a weakened immune system as a result of  HIV/AIDS, one is more susceptible to the cryptosporidium parasites than a person with a healthy immune system. People with HIV/AIDS can develop chronic signs and symptoms of diseases caused by cryptosporidia that can be difficult to treat.

Cryptosporidium parasites are one of the more infectious diarrhea-causing organisms in humans. As this parasite is not easy to get rid of because it’s resistant to many disinfectants and a lot of filters don’t remove it.

Cryptosporidia can survive for several weeks at different temperatures, although the parasite can be destroyed by boiling. People who are at a higher risk of developing cryptosporidiosis are:

  • Diapers wearing adults and children; especially those who attend care centers
  • Parents of infected children and child care workers
  • Animal handlers i.e. Veterinary doctors, animal owners, etc.
  • Persons who engage in oral and anal sex.
  • International travelers, especially those traveling to 3rd world countries.
  • Hikers and campers who drink untreated contaminated water.
  • Swimmers who intake water while swimming.
  • People who drink water from unprotected and shallow wells

Complications

Complications of Cryptosporidium infection can include:

  • Malnourishment can be caused by the low absorption of nutrients from the intestines.
  • Chronic dehydration
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling of the passage between the liver, gallbladder, and bile duct or small intestine.
  • Acute swelling of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas.

Cryptosporidium infection isn’t a high-risk disease, but if one has had a transplant or has a compromised immune system, developing complications can make it life-threatening.

Symptoms

The noticeable signs and symptoms of the cryptosporidium infection, which usually appears within the first 7 to 14 days are :

  • Watery stool
  • Severe weight loss
  • Anorexia
  • Chronic dehydration
  • Regurgitation
  • Fever and nausea
  • Stomach pains

Treatment

Healthy persons infected with cryptosporidiosis can recover within 14 days without treatment. But persons with a weak immune system can be treated to alleviate the signs and symptoms, to improve the immune response.

Cryptosporidiosis treatment includes:

  • Anti-Parasitic medications which can include nitazoxanide (Alinia) can relieve diarrhea by attacking the causative agents, Azithromycin (Zithromax) may also be administered.
  • Anti-motility agents are pharmaceutical drugs that slow intestinal movement and increase the absorption of fluids to restore normal stools. Anti-motility drugs include loperamide and its derivatives. The drugs are to be taken with Doctor’s prescription and consultation
  • Fluid replacement, chronic diarrhea can result in dehydration. Fluids and electrolytes, which contain minerals such as potassium, sodium, and calcium can be replenished orally or intravenous replacement to maintain a balance.
  • Antiretroviral therapies for HIV/AIDS patients can reduce the virus load in the body and boost immune response. A balanced immune system can get rid of the symptoms of cryptosporidiosis.

Prevention

Cryptosporidium infection is highly contagious, so proactive steps are to be taken to avoid the spread of the parasite to others. There exist no vaccine to prevent cryptosporidium infection. But the below practices can reduce risks of contamination:

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  • The practice of good health hygiene like washing of the hands for a minimum of 20 seconds with soap and water after using the toilet or changing diapers, and before and after eating. Although the use of Alcohol-based hand sanitizers doesn’t kill the germs that cause cryptosporidium infection.
  • All fruits and vegetables that you will eat raw should be soaked and washed with clean, uncontaminated water. One should avoid eating food; one suspects could be contaminated. If traveling in a developing country, one should avoid uncooked foods or foods cooked in unsanitary environments.
  • Purifying of drinking water if one has a compromised immune system or traveling areas with a high risk of infection. Methods of purification can include boiling or filtering, although filtering is not as effective as boiling.
  • Fecal exposure is to be avoided before and during sexual activity.
  • Swimming and related activities should be avoided when one had diarrhea. Infected persons shouldn’t go swimming for at least two weeks after symptoms go away because one can still be contagious.
Cryptosporidium Infection (Cryptosporidiosis)
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Disclaimer: This article is purely informative & educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

Jennifer Aigbini
I am a language enthusiast, studying Linguistics at the University of Benin, in Nigeria.
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