QUESTION: “Hi Dr. Neal, I'm wondering about gut health for parasites. My little girl was sent for testing and she's had a parasite come back in a sample. Three weeks of antibiotics has failed to really cleary it a hundred percent. I'd love to know your thoughts on gut health and what to do when you get parasites, so that we can help her out. Thanks.”
DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for taking the time to send me your question. I’m so sorry to hear that your daughter has been dealing with this illness. Please know I am sending healing thoughts.
Based on the symptoms described, my best guess is that your daughter is suffering from a parasite known as Giardia. A fancy way of saying this is that your daughter is suffering from giardiasis. The giveaway was those sulfur, or “eggy” burps you described. Those are pretty classic symptoms of giardiasis.
What is a Parasite?
It turns out that this giardia parasite is really common throughout the world.
Before we continue, I should mention what a parasite is. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a parasite is a living thing that lives in another living thing. The parasite uses its “host” to supply it with food and nutrients in order to survive. So it basically uses the host to keep itself alive.
Now these parasites are often microscopic – we can’t see them with the naked eye. But some are larger or can grow to be larger to the point where they can be seen without fancy equipment like a microscope.
Where Does the Giardia Parasite Come From?
In the case of the giardia parasite, it’s microscopic so we can’t see it with our naked eyes and it likes to live in water. We’re talking about streams, rivers, ponds, lakes… and yes, even swimming pools. If drinking water comes from a well and is not treated before it’s consumed, that could also be a source of the giardia parasite. Our foods could also be a source.
As if that weren’t enough, the parasite can also be spread from person-to-person. People may infect others without even realizing they have it because there are some that have the giardia parasite in their bodies but don’t ever experience symptoms. Now, before I make everyone nervous I should mention that giardiasis is not nearly as contagious as, say COVID-19, but it can be transmitted through poor hygiene practices which I’ll explain in a moment.
So, it’s possible that your daughter could have contracted the parasite from any number of sources. Children, in general, are more likely to become infected. This is because of a combination of more exposure and hygiene. Children are more likely to be hanging around with other children that may also have it but aren’t experiencing any symptoms and children are less likely to wash their hands before touching their mouth or before they eat.
Which brings me to preventing this type of infection…
How Do You Prevent Giardiasis?
According to the Mayo Clinic, the best ways to prevent giardiasis are to:
- Wash our hands before touching our face or eating. Scrubbing hands using soap and water for 20-30 seconds should do the trick. Reciting the alphabet while washing hands is a good way to make sure we’re washing our hands for 20-30 seconds. Once you get to the letter Z, you’re done!
- Make sure that drinking water is safe. This is particularly important when traveling to non-industrialized countries. Same goes for camping. It’s usually not a good idea to drink from streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes without making sure that the water is purified first. If traveling to a non-industrialized country where the water may not be safe to drink from the tap, buy bottled water and never ask for ice in your drinks.
- When using a public swimming pool, or swimming in a lake, try not to drink any of the water. Giardia can survive in these environments. That’s why the signs at public swimming pools say that if you’ve recently experienced diarrhea, do not enter the water.
- Wash your fresh produce. In most industrialized countries, the food supply is very safe. But it couldn’t hurt to go ahead and wash fresh produce before consuming it. If you’re traveling to a country that may not have fresh drinking water available, it may not be a good idea to eat fresh produce while visiting. Instead, eat only cooked vegetables and canned fruit.
Treatments for Giardiasis
So, what about treatments for this parasite? Antibiotics are the most common treatment. Unfortunately, they don’t always work. Even if they do work, people may continue to experience unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms even after the parasite is long gone.
I found a study that looked at why this happens and, unfortunately, their results were inconclusive. Meaning, they weren’t sure why some people experienced symptoms long after their treatment. But the good news was, they did find that most people eventually did start feeling better – it just took them longer than expected.
My recommendation would be to be sure that you and your daughter stay in touch with her doctor. If one antibiotic didn’t do the trick, there are others that can be tried. But they will know the best course of action and will help prevent any complications that can occur over time like nutrient deficiencies or dehydration.
I imagine that, with time, your daughter will feel better and this will all be a distant memory soon.