Whether you can see them or not, parasites are pretty much everywhere. They are in the air, in the soil, in food, even inside you – hiding out on your skin, in your hair, and in your gut.
And it’s not true that you have to be dirty and forget to wash to get parasites (although some of the nastier ones will prefer you if you’re a bit of a stinker). Many common parasites, such as head lice, prefer a clean environment.
There’s no escaping the little critters.
And in many cases, you shouldn’t want to. Many parasites are actually good for you. It’s true. They’ll eat up flakes of dead skin, absorb excess oils and keep your intestines clean. They’re the helpful parasites.
Others just hitch a ride with you for a time, and you’d never even notice. They’re the harmless parasites.
Some of them are mean. They’ll eat you out from the inside, infect you with deadly diseases and otherwise give you more trouble than your kid brother when he’s bored and got nothing better to do. They’re the DEADLY PARASITES.
But wait a second. Aren’t we jumping ahead here? I mean, what are parasites?
Easy. I just looked it up, and this is what my online dictionary says:
So, now we know what parasites are, where they are and what they do.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common parasites that we – and our pets, but more of that later – are most likely to encounter in our daily lives at home, work and school.
There are so many, it’s hard to know where to begin. I guess we should start at the top.
Are you ready to find out all about head lice? Let’s do it!
Head lice are pretty small – which is true of many parasites. Being small is a good way of getting by unnoticed and sneaking into places on your host organism where they would probably rather you didn’t.
As their name implies, these little critters live on your head: more precisely, in your hair. Sometimes they can even turn up in your eyelashes or eyebrows.
Head lice breed very freely and so can spread rapidly not only through your own hair, but also onto other people that you come into contact with.
Outbreaks of head louse infestation tend to happen in places where lots of people mingle closely together – such as schools, for example.
Not exactly. Sometimes you’ll hear people using these words interchangeably, but in fact nits is the term for a louse’s eggs.
These eggs are very small but can be identified near the follicles of your hair (if you have lice) by an expert eye.
If you have head lice, then you will almost certainly have nits.
If you have nits and you don’t do anything about it, then you will be sure to play host to a heck of a lot of lice.
If you do have lice or nits, it is important to get the situation treated.
Not only can head lice leave your skin feeling very sore and itchy, but if left alone, they can make you feel generally very unwell.
Fortunately, they can be gotten rid of pretty easily these days by using a special, medicated shampoo and a close-pronged ‘nit comb.’
Why have we put fleas and mosquitoes together?
Well, for the simple reason that they are both skin parasites. Some parasites just live on you – but these guys actually eat you.
Fleas live on your skin – not always for a long time as sometimes they’ll just ‘hitch a ride’ and then jump off onto someone else. But whether they’re with you just a few minutes or for days and weeks, they will be busy eating your skin, biting you and licking up excreted oils.
If they bite, they can leave you itching and sore.
Mosquitoes can carry some pretty serious diseases in some parts of the world, including malaria, which is potentially fatal if it goes untreated.
Mosquitoes puncture your skin, insert a long, hollow proboscis down into a vein, and slurp up your blood.
Forget vampires, mosquitoes mean business – and unlike the characters from Twilight, mosquitoes are real!
Mites are skin parasites, too, but they are almost completely harmless.
Mites live in the pores of your skin (yes, they are really small) and sometimes in your hair. You almost certainly have mites. So does everyone else in your family, probably. Maybe the dog has them, too.
But don’t worry. Mites won’t eat you. They’re completely harmless and practically invisible.
I bet you didn’t even know you had them, did you?
Roundworms aren’t so nice.
Roundworms are a kind of nematode.
Roundworms, given the chance, will happily infest your guts where they can survive for a long time. They’ll take up residence in your intestines, living, feeding and reproducing there. If they go undetected, they can spread in large numbers throughout other parts of your body, too.
But how do they get to you in the first place? The most common way of becoming infested by roundworms is by ingesting their eggs. Their eggs are tiny and can be found on food and in dirty water.
Once you’ve swallowed the eggs, your gut is the perfect, warm, moist environment for them to hatch in.
Fully grown roundworms can be up to a foot long. The first most people know about having them is when they go to the bathroom and find that their poop is wriggling with living things.
An infection of roundworms (properly termed ascariasis) is, fortunately, pretty easy to treat.
It’s a good idea to wash and clean all your fruit and vegetables before eating them, too.
Just when you thought you’d had enough of worms…
… then you find out about these particularly nasty parasites, tapeworms (properly called cestodes).
Tapeworms, like roundworms, also live in your intestines. Again, they usually enter your body as eggs and then hatch out inside you.
Tapeworms can grow up to 30 feet long. Yes, you read that right – 30 feet long!
Fortunately, tapeworm infections are very rare in the USA, Great Britain and other developed countries.
Their eggs or small juvenile worms can be contracted by
- contact with excrement, animal or human
- ingesting dirty water
- consuming raw animal products such as meat, fish and eggs
If your dog or cat has them and you let him lick your face, you can catch them that way, too.
Bed bugs? Yes, they’re real.
While we call them ‘bed bugs’ they can actually thrive almost anywhere.
They are small, oval shaped, flightless insects. They can also survive for several months without needing to eat.
The best way to avoid these little beasties is through good hygiene and cleanliness. They love dirt. They prosper in airless, dirty, cramped places with lots of nooks and crannies to hide away in.
They got their name from a time when beds were mostly straw mattresses and modern hygiene practices had yet to be invented. Back in the day, dirty, unwashed beds – often crammed close together in squalid conditions, were a straightforward paradise for these parasites.
Bed bugs can easily be gotten rid of these days by treatment with a simple dose of an appropriate insecticide. In the old days, you had to burn your mattress.
Ticks like blood.
And to get at yours, if they land on you, they’ll bury their heads into your skin and start to feast.
They’ll do the same to your dog or your cat, too, if they get the chance.
They live in long, rank grass – especially in areas grazed by sheep or cattle.
Ticks also harbor some nasty infections which they can transfer to you. If you ever find that you have a tick, don’t try to pull it out yourself. If you do, most likely you’ll pull the swollen, blood-filled body away and leave the head under your skin. Not nice.
If you pick up a tick – and it can happen – seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Parasites, as we’ve seen, can be problematic for humans. Fortunately, the most unpleasant ones can mostly be avoided by keeping yourself and your environment clean.
However, they can also be a problem for our pets.
Most of the parasites that we’ve looked at here are even more common in the animals we live with. Dogs and cats, for example, can all succumb to fleas, lice, worms and ticks.
In some cases, these parasites can make our pets very unwell.
If your pet is scratching excessively, develops patchy fur or has faeces (poop) that are runny or wriggling, you’d be well advised to get him to the vet as soon as you can for a diagnosis.
Prevention is better than cure, they say. That’s certainly true here. Most pets should be regularly treated for worms and fleas at least. This is usually a simple matter of adding something to their food or putting a few drops of medication under their fur.
Get some advice from your vet about the best products and practices for your pet.