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Ascaris is a parasitic round worm that can live inside a human’s intestine. Its eggs are present in the feces of infected people or in pigs. Contact with soil, with unwashed fruit or vegetables, or directly with feces are considered primary means of transmission.
Infection with ascaris is very rare in the US, although it may occasionally occur in the southeastern part of the country. One is more likely to contract it in developing countries where hygiene may be poorer.
Ascaris can cause stomach discomfort if they live in the intestines. This usually manifests as stomach pain. If the worms get into the lungs, they can also cause coughing, labored breathing or a feeling that the lungs are congested. Usually, one must be infected with multiple ascaris for the worms to reach the lungs. Diarrhea and fever may also be noted in those with an infection.
Diagnosis is made through analysis of stool samples, which can help to easily identify the presence of eggs from ascaris. Once a diagnosis is made, doctors usually prescribe medications called immunobiologics. Medications like mebendazole, piperazine, and albendazole can all treat an infection in about three days. Follow-up testing of stool samples may be required about two weeks after taking the medication.
Native Americans used the herb epazote to treat ascaris infections, and it is effective for mild cases. However, as with any herbal supplement, treatment should be sanctioned by a medical professional. Pregnant women with infections may delay treatment until after they give birth since both herbal and chemical remedies may be of risk to the unborn child.
Difficulty can occur if the infection remains untreated for a long period of time. People who may not have access to medication may have long-lasting ascaris infections that can scar the intestines. Individual worms can migrate to other parts of the body, and ultimately cause death. Death from this parasite is extremely rare in developed nations, but may occur in developing countries where access to medicines is limited.
If traveling to a developing country, one should be particularly vigilant about consuming fresh fruit or vegetables, which may have been grown in infected soil. Fruit and vegetables should be thoroughly washed and/or cooked. As well, water sources that are not treated may harbor parasites, and people are advised to drink bottled water only.
Those who regularly work with pigs should also be careful about washing the hands after handling or caring for the animals. Though pigs carry a slightly different type of ascaris, it can jump to humans. The worms are unlikely to jump from person to person unless people do not practice hygienic toilet behavior. Washing the hands after using the bathroom is the primary way to avoid infection.