A parasite is an organism that lives in another organism, called the host, and often harms it. It depends on its host for survival.
Without a host, a parasite cannot live, grow and multiply. For this reason, it rarely kills the host, but it can spread diseases, and some of these can be fatal.
Parasites, unlike predators, are usually much smaller than their host and they reproduce at a faster rate.
Fast facts on parasites
Parasites live on or in other organisms and thrive to the detriment of their host.
Many different parasites can affect humans, and they can pass on diseases such as malaria and trichomoniasis.
Ensuring that food is fully cooked, using insect repellant, and following good hand hygiene rules can reduce the risk of getting parasites.
What is a parasite?
Parasites range from microscopic in size to over 30 meters in length.
A parasite is an organism that lives within or on a host. The host is another organism.
The parasite uses the host’s resources to fuel its life cycle. It uses the host’s resources to maintain itself.
Parasites vary widely. Around 70 percent are not visible to the human eye, such as the malarial parasite, but some worm parasites can reach over 30 meters in length.
Parasites are not a disease, but they can spread diseases. Different parasites have different effects.
These live inside the host. They include heartworm, tapeworm, and flatworms. An intercellular parasite lives in the spaces within the host’s body, within the host’s cells. They include bacteria and viruses.
Endoparasites rely on a third organism, known as the vector, or carrier. The vector transmits the endoparasite to the host. The mosquito is a vector for many parasites, including the protozoan known as Plasmodium, which causes malaria.
These feed on other parasites in a relationship known as hyperparasitism. A flea lives on a dog, but the flea may have a protozoan in its digestive tract. The protozoan is the hyperparasite.
There are three main types of parasites.
Protozoa: Examples include the single-celled organism known as Plasmodium. A protozoa can only multiply, or divide, within the host.
Helminths: These are worm parasites. Schistosomiasis is caused by a helminth. Other examples include roundworm, pinworm, trichina spiralis, tapeworm, and fluke.
Ectoparasites: These live on, rather than in their hosts. They include lice and fleas.
Some parasite-related problems, such as giardiasis and amebic dysentery, can cause abdominal pain.
Symptoms that might occur include:
skin bumps or rashes
weight loss, increased appetite, or both
abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting
aches and pains
weakness and general feeling unwell
However, parasites can pass on a wide variety of conditions, so symptoms are hard to predict.
Often there are no symptoms, or symptoms appear long after infection, but the parasite can still be transmitted to another person, who may develop symptoms.
Many types of parasites can affect humans. Here are some examples of parasites and the diseases they can cause.
This tiny ameba can affect the eye, the skin, and the brain. It exists all over the world in water and soil. Individuals can become infected if they clean contact lenses with tap water.
This disease that comes from parasites that are spread by ticks. It affects the red blood cells. The risk is highest in summer in the Northeast and upper Midwest of the United States.
This is passed on by Balatidium coli, a single-cell parasite that usually infects pigs but can, in rare cases, cause intestinal infection in humans. It can be spread through direct contact with pigs or by drinking contaminated water, usually in tropical regions.
This affects the intestines. The blastocystis enters humans through the fecal-oral route. A person can get it by eating food or drink contaminated with human or animal feces where the parasite is present.
This affects the intestines. Coccidia is passed on through the fecal-oral route. It is found around the world. It can also affect dogs and cats, but these are different kinds. Dogs, cats, and humans cannot normally infect each other.
This is caused by the parasite Entamoeba histolytica. It affects the intestines. It is more likely in tropical regions and in areas with high population density and poor sanitation. It is transmitted through the fecal-oral route.
Giardia, or “beaver fever” affects the lumen of the small intestine. If humans ingest food or water contaminated with feces, dormant cysts may infect the body.
Isosporiasis or cystosporiasis
This disease is caused by the Cystoisospora belli, previously known as Isospora belli. It affects the epithelial cells of the small intestine. It exists worldwide and is both treatable and preventable. It is passed on through the fecal-oral route.
This is a disease that is passed on by parasites of the Leishmania family. It can affect the skin, the viscera, or the mucous membranes of the nose, mouth, and throat. It can be fatal. The parasite is transmitted by types of sandflies.
Primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM)
This is passed on through a free-living ameba known as Naegleria fowleri. It affects the brain and the nervous system, and it is nearly always fatal within 1 to 18 days. It is transmitted through breathing in contaminated soil, swimming pools, and contaminated water, but not from drinking water.
Different types of plasmodium affect the red blood cells. It exists in tropical regions and is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito.
This is caused by Rhinosporidium seeberi. It mainly affects the mucous of the nose, conjunctiva, and urethra. It is more common in India and Sri Lanka but can occur elsewhere. Polyps result in nasal masses that need to be removed through surgery. Bathing in common ponds can expose the nasal mucous to the parasite.
This is a parasitic pneumonia caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. It affects the liver, heart, eyes and brain. It occurs worldwide. People can become infected after ingesting raw or undercooked pork, lamb, goat, or milk, or though contact with food or soil that is contaminated with cat feces.
A person with a healthy immune system will not usually have symptoms, but it can pose a risk during pregnancy and for those with a weakened immune system.