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Health Information For Parents
Giardiasis is an illness that affects the digestive tract (stomach and intestines). It’s one of the top causes of diarrhea in the United States.
Giardiasis (jee-are-DYE-uh-sis) is caused by the microscopic Giardia parasite. The parasite attaches itself to the lining of the small intestines in humans, where it causes diarrhea and interferes with the body’s absorption of fats and carbohydrates from digested foods.
Giardiasis is very contagious, and can spread easily among families. In childcare centers or any facility caring for a group of people, or people who are traveling, giardiasis can easily pass from person to person.
Giardiasis spreads through water or food contaminated with the stool (poop) of someone who’s infected. Animals (mainly dogs and beavers) who have giardiasis also can pass the parasite in their stool. The stool can then contaminate public water supplies, community swimming pools, and water sources like lakes and streams.
Uncooked foods that have been rinsed in contaminated water and surfaces contaminated by stool (for instances, diaper pails and toilet handles) also can spread the infection.
The Giardia parasite can survive the normal amounts of chlorine used to purify community water supplies, and can live for more than 2 months in cold water. As few as 10 of the microscopic parasites in a glass of water can cause severe giardiasis in a person who drinks it.
In developing countries, giardiasis is a major cause of epidemic childhood diarrhea. But even people in developed countries can get the infection, especially children younger than 5.
Young kids are more likely to have giardiasis than adults. So some experts think that our bodies gradually develop some form of immunity to the parasite as we get older. But it isn’t unusual for an entire family to be infected, with some family members having diarrhea, some just crampy abdominal pains, and others with no symptoms.
Many people with giardiasis have no signs or symptoms of illness, even though the parasite is living in their intestines.
When the parasite does cause symptoms, the illness usually begins with severe watery diarrhea. Giardiasis affects the body’s ability to absorb fats from the diet, so the diarrhea contains unabsorbed fats. That means that the diarrhea floats, is shiny, and smells very bad.
Other symptoms include:
These symptoms may last for 5 to 7 days or longer. If they last longer, a child may lose weight or show other signs of poor nutrition.
(or short-term) symptoms of giardiasis pass, the disease begins a
(or more lasting) phase. Symptoms of chronic giardiasis include:
Doctors confirm the diagnosis of giardiasis by taking stool samples that are checked for Giardia parasites. Several samples may be needed before the parasites are found. For that reason, the doctor might order a much more sensitive test, the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or ELISA test.
Less often, doctors make the diagnosis by looking at the lining of the small intestine with an instrument called an
and taking samples from inside the intestine to be checked in a lab. This is done in more extreme cases, when a definite cause for the diarrhea hasn’t been found.
Giardiasis is treated with prescription medicines that kill the parasites. Treatment takes about 5 to 7 days, and the medicine is usually given as a liquid. Some of these medicines may have side effects, so your doctor will tell you what to watch for.
If your child has giardiasis, be sure to give all doses on schedule for as long as your doctor directs. This will help your child recover faster and will kill parasites that might infect others in your family. Encourage all family members to wash their hands well and often, especially after using the bathroom and before eating.
A child who has diarrhea from giardiasis may lose too much fluid in the stool and become dehydrated. Make sure the child drinks plenty of liquids but no caffeinated beverages or juice, as they make the body lose water faster.
Ask the doctor before you give your child any nonprescription drugs for cramps or diarrhea because these medicines may mask symptoms and interfere with treatment.
In most cases, treatment with 5 to 7 days of antiparasitic medicine will help kids recover within a week’s time. Medicine also shortens the time that they’re contagious. If giardiasis isn’t treated, symptoms can last up to 6 weeks or longer.
Some food safety and hygiene precautions can help prevent giardiasis. To help protect your family:
Also, it’s questionable whether infants and toddlers still in diapers should be sharing public pools. But they definitely should not if they’re having diarrhea or loose stools (poop).
Call the doctor if your child has:
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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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