Parasite Cleanses: Is This Growing Health Trend Actually Safe?

Traveling to foreign countries can be exciting, but some of that exotic water or food could have some microorganisms that can get you quite sick. Even mosquitoes can carry serious diseases such as malaria. When a parasite gets into your system, it lives off of your body and its nutrients. A parasite in your food or water can live in your digestive system and cause diarrhea or vomiting. You might remember RFK Jr. recently telling the public about the brain-eating parasite in his head.

If you've traveled abroad to a destination that doesn't have strict regulations on sanitation, you might have a worm problem if you develop a fever, body aches, diarrhea, or fatigue. Recent fads will suggest a parasite cleanse even if you have these symptoms but haven't been abroad. A parasite cleanse might include taking supplements, following a restrictive diet, or using enemas to get rid of the parasite.

Chief Medical Officer and Physician at One Oak Medical, Dr. Jason Singh, says parasite cleanses aren't a good idea. "Many symptoms of parasitic infections can mimic other gastrointestinal disorders and make self-diagnosis unreliable," Singh said in an exclusive interview with Health Digest. That could put your health more at risk because you're not getting care for the condition you might actually have.

Cleanses can't treat parasites

Singh said that a stool or blood test can determine what type of parasite you might have. Sometimes an endoscopy, colonoscopy, or MRI might be needed. "Different parasitic infections require different treatments so accuracy in identification is important for effective management," he said. Some parasites can be treated with antibiotics or antifungals, while others might be treated with antiparasitics. Unfortunately, no single medication can treat all types of parasites.

Parasite cleanses don't have any of these medications. Instead, these cleanses might use some herbal formulations that might have antiparasitic effects. "Many of the supplements marked for 'parasite cleansing' especially on social media lack scientific evidence to support their effectiveness," Singh said.

Supplements aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so you don't know if parasite cleanses are safe for your body. According to Nebraska Medicine, some herbal supplements could increase your risk of liver disease. Colon cleansing products might also harm your digestive system because they have laxative effects. You also don't know if any of these parasite-cleansing supplements might interact with the medications you're taking.

How parasites can spread

If you know you're heading to a foreign country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers health-related advice for travelers to specific destinations. For example, if you travel to Mozambique, you might want to have your doctor prescribe you malaria medication before you go. Swimming in contaminated water could put you at risk for a parasite that causes schistosomiasis.

Parasites are also active in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. People who are infected with a parasite can spread it to others if they handle your food without properly washing their hands. Some parasites can spread if meat hasn't been cooked to a safe temperature. You or your children can catch some gross things when you swim in community pools. Outdoor cats can catch and spread parasites when they use sandboxes or your garden as litter boxes.

Some people are at a greater risk for a parasite infection, such as those with compromised immune systems or organ transplant recipients. Young children, older adults, and pregnant women can also have a higher risk of getting sick from a parasite infection. Children who attend daycare and daycare providers can also get a parasite infection if they don't properly wash their hands and the play surfaces aren't sufficiently cleaned.