Worldwide, parasites cause more infections than anything else. They nearly always get into our
systems through the mouth, when we unknowing eat or drink microscopic worm eggs or larvae from contaminated food or drink or lick them from our fingers. Once they make their homes in our bodies they fall into two types. There are the residents, such a giardia, roundworms and certain tapeworms which remain in the small intestine. Then there are the transients, which travel to other organs or may lie dormant for weeks after moving in. these can cause serious illnesses and include the pork tapeworm, toxocara and liver fluke.
If you travel abroad you can end up bringing home some exotic little beasts, which will feast on your blood and lay eggs in your organs. Threadworms and head lice are much more common than most people would like to admit, although neither are actually dangerous. Generally the bugs we encounter abroad are much nastier than you would find at home. If you are in southeast Asia you may encounter an aquatic leech. It will crawl into any orifice if can find-mouth, vagina, nostrils, ears-and suck your blood. Even worse, you might be invaded by something you can’t even see-a particularly nasty group of amoebae that swim up you nostrils and wriggle into your brain. They destroy brain cells, causing vomiting, fever and usually death. Luckily this condition is very rare.
Swallowing eggs of the pork tapeworm is much more common. It happens when you eat infected undercooked meat or drink contaminated water. The eggs hatch and worms make their way through the blood supply into the muscles, eyes or brain. It is most dangerous when the worms die in the brain, as the immune system detects them as “foreign” and tires to destroy the remains. This causes fits, paralysis and sometimes death. But don’t burn your passport just yet.
The most common risk facing travelers is diarrhea. And though it can come in exotic forms, it is usually easily curable. Often a change in diet alone is enough to cause nausea and a mild case of diarrhea, which usually gets better within a couple of days. But some food poisoning bugs and parasites are much worse than others. The condition can almost always occurs when traces of human feces make their way into the water supply. The highest risk areas include Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
You are least likely to get diarrhea is you eat in a private home and most likely to get it from a street vendor. Hotels and restaurants come in the middle. Avoid the following: raw fruit and vegetables, undercooked seafood, undercooked or raw meat, tap water, ice, dairy products and unpasteurized milk. The safest drinks come from a sealed bottle or are hot, like coffee and tea. Be particularly careful about washing your hands before eating or handling food, and after using the toilet. If washing is difficult, use antiseptic wipes.
If you have diarrhea and/or vomiting, it is important not to get dehydrated-but only drink water that has been boiled or comes from a reliable bottled source. Avoid alcohol, dairy products and coffee. Lying down on your left side while you are recovering from diarrhea will relieve the pressure of gas. Medicines such as Imodium will help and are useful if you have to make a long journey where toilets are hard to find. See a doctor if it’s possible who can give you an antibiotic that works against bacterial infection. It is always good planning to take some medicine with you for diarrhea no matter where you travel.
Other critters you may encounter on your journeys could be bed bugs, head lice and scabies. Bed bugs are vile but they don’t spread diseases. They are brown wingless insects that feed on blood and hind in the crevices in walls and furniture. They excrete as they feed leaving telltale dark stains that you might spot on the edge of a mattress. Avoid them by pulling your bed away from the wall and leaving the light on, as they prefer to feel in the dark. Mosquito nets with some insecticide should also help. Ask for another room immediately if you suspect bed bugs and make sure the linen in a room is clean.
Head lice are all over the world but are most common among school children. They are transmitted by head-to-head contact. In turn, family members of any age can also get them. They are difficult to avoid unless every person in the family who is acting as a host to the head lice is treated at the same time. They cause itching and can be seen if you shake them out of your hair and on to a piece of paper. They are treated by using insecticide shampoos and removing eggs with a special comb. The crab louse lives in pubic or armpit hair and is transmitted by human-to-human contact (usually sexual). The body louse, despite its name, lives in clothing that is worn for a long period of time. In all the above cases, all over the world, go to a pharmacy and ask for an insecticide that will treat the problem. Wash all clothing and bedding thoroughly and immediately, or these lice will reappear.
Scabies can cause a lot of discomfort if left untreated. It is a parasitic mite that burrows into the skin following close physical contact. Its favorite places are the hands, feet and male private parts. Because the parasite creates an allergic reaction, people can find themselves itching all over rather than just in the site where the mite has invaded. To avoid it, be careful who you get close to. The jury is still out on whether you can get scabies from towels or bedding. Protect yourself by washing towels and bedding at high temperatures. Don’t share towels or beds until you have completed treatment.
The most important advice is to stay in clean places with clean bedding and towels, although some First Class hotels have been accused of having bed bugs. Seek treatment quickly and don’t be ashamed to go to a pharmacy and ask questions about treatment for this or any medical problems you may have on your travels.
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