You can get sick with cryptosporidiosis if you eat or drink water contaminated with the cryptosporidium parasite. It is also highly contagious. The CDC also notes that it is the leading cause of waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States.
This article discusses cryptosporidium, the disease it causes known as cryptosporidiosis, symptoms, diagnosis, and the recovery process.
Cryptosporidium is also often shortened to “crypto.” It is a one-celled parasite that causes a severe diarrheal disease called cryptosporidiosis. This infection is different from cryptococcal meningitis, a fungal infection of the meninges, also called crypto.
Cryptosporidium can survive even in water treated with chlorine because they have outer shells that protect them. They can also survive outside the human body for a long time and can infect animals.
When you have cryptosporidiosis from cryptosporidium, it can cause you to experience many symptoms, such as:
- watery diarrhea
- nausea, which can last for 1–2 weeks or more, depending on a person’s immune system
People with healthy immune systems often recover from cryptosporidiosis even without treatment. If you have cryptosporidiosis, your doctor may recommend that you drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration and eat balanced meals to help relieve symptoms.
Some people may not experience symptoms immediately after getting the infection from the cryptosporidium parasite. Symptoms often appear in people after 2–10 days of the infection.
Common symptoms of the infection include:
The most common symptom is watery diarrhea. Some people may not even show symptoms at all.
Other people show symptoms that may last for about 1–2 weeks. People with weaker immune systems may be more likely to get the infection and experience more severe, persistent symptoms.
Read more about diarrhea here.
The cryptosporidium parasite does not cause all diarrhea. Digestive issues, food allergies, or other microorganisms cause some diarrhea. However, contact your doctor if you experience persistent diarrhea. Persistent diarrhea involves 10 episodes or more in 24 hours, which can lead to dehydration.
Also, if other symptoms accompany your diarrhea, like stomach cramps and nausea, reach out to your healthcare professional.
The following people may have a higher chance of an infection from cryptosporidium:
- older adults
- people who handle animals or who drink untreated water
People with medical conditions that compromise their immune systems, e.g., HIV, often experience more severe symptoms that last for a longer duration.
The cryptosporidium parasite causes cryptosporidiosis. The parasite lives in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. However, it can still survive days outside the body. Swallowing the parasite leads to an infection.
One common way of swallowing cryptosporidium is by drinking untreated water. Most waterborne disease outbreaks between 2001 and 2010 linked to cryptosporidium. You can also ingest it by eating contaminated foods or putting contaminated objects into your mouth.
Some people may not need treatment for the infection from cryptosporidium, since it can resolve on its own.
Medications may also help treat the condition. Your doctor can prescribe medications such as nitazoxanide and loperamide to help relieve diarrhea. Loperamide is also available over the counter under the brand name Immodium A-D.
For people with weak immune systems due to medical conditions, doctors may need to treat the underlying condition to strengthen the immune system so it can clear the infection.
Your doctor may also advise that you drink plenty of water and take oral rehydration powders to help prevent dehydration.
How long is the recovery process?
Many people often recover fast when they get an infection from cryptosporidium. For some, it does not cause symptoms, while others may experience symptoms that can last for days.
People with weak immune systems tend to be at a greater risk because an infection from cryptosporidium can be life threatening.
Symptom recurrence is possible even after recovery. You can experience symptoms that come and go for up to 4 weeks.
Foods to eat when you have cryptosporidium
If you have an infection from cryptosporidium, it is a good idea to eat foods that can help rehydrate you and to avoid foods that will cause dehydration or worsen your symptoms.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Eat balanced meals.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and foods that trigger nausea or allergy, which can worsen symptoms.
Since people with an infection from cryptosporidium shed the parasite in their feces, your doctor will most likely order stool tests, which healthcare professionals perform in a lab. These tests help them look for signs of the parasite.
They can look at the samples under a microscope. They can also take a DNA test to look for the parasite’s genetic material, or do antigen testing to check for a protein that points to the microorganism causing the issue.
People can contract the cryptosporidium parasite by eating and drinking water contaminated with it. The parasite can spread from hand to mouth when you put contaminated hands into your mouth, for example.
Ways to transmit the cryptosporidium parasite include:
- drinking untreated water, e.g., swallowing recreational swimming water
- touching animals or contaminated surfaces
- eating undercooked or raw food contaminated with cryptosporidium
- having oral or anal sex with someone who has the infection from cryptosporidium
- touching contaminated toys or diapers
People cannot contract cryptosporidium via blood.
There is currently no available vaccine for preventing the infection from cryptosporidium. However, some things you can do to prevent infection include washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water when:
- using the toilet or changing your baby’s diapers
- touching surfaces without disinfection
- handling soil
- preparing meals
There are other tips to prevent infection from cryptosporidium as well:
- Treat your water properly before drinking.
- Cook your food, including meat, thoroughly before eating.
- Wash fruits properly under treated, running water before eating.
- When traveling internationally, drink treated water or boil the water yourself before drinking.
Infection from cryptosporidium is highly contagious, causing frequent watery diarrhea. Older adults, children, and people with weaker immune symptoms tend to be more likely to get it. However, it is treatable.
For many people, symptoms last for several days. In rare cases, it can be severe, presenting with symptoms that last for weeks. Your doctor can prescribe the right medication for you after diagnosis.