Cryptosporidium infection (cryptosporidiosis) is an illness caused by tiny cryptosporidium parasites. When cryptosporidia (krip-toe-spoe-RID-e-uh) enter your body, they travel to your small intestine and then burrow into the walls of your intestines. Later, cryptosporidia are shed in your feces.
In most healthy people, a cryptosporidium infection produces a bout of watery diarrhea and the infection usually goes away within a week or two. If you have a compromised immune system, a cryptosporidium infection can become life-threatening without proper treatment.
You can help prevent a cryptosporidium infection by practicing good hygiene and avoiding swallowing water from pools, recreational water parks, lakes and streams.
Cryptosporidium infection begins when you ingest the one-celled cryptosporidium parasite. Some strains of cryptosporidium may cause more serious disease.
These parasites then travel to your intestinal tract, where they settle into the walls of your intestines. Eventually, more cells are produced and shed in massive quantities into your feces, where they are highly contagious.
You can become infected with cryptosporidia by touching anything that has come in contact with contaminated feces. Methods of infection include:
- Drinking contaminated water that contains cryptosporidium parasites
- Swimming in contaminated water that contains cryptosporidium parasites and accidentally swallowing some of it
- Eating uncooked, contaminated food that contains cryptosporidia
- Touching your hand to your mouth if your hand has been in contact with a contaminated surface or object
- Having close contact with other infected people or animals— especially their feces — which can allow the parasite to be transmitted from your hands to your mouth
- If you have a compromised immune system from HIV/AIDS, you’re more susceptible to illness from cryptosporidium parasites than is a person with a healthy immune system. People with HIV/AIDS can develop severe symptoms and a chronic, persistent form of disease that may be difficult to treat.
Cryptosporidium parasites are one of the most common causes of diarrhea in humans. This parasite is difficult to eradicate because it’s resistant to many chlorine-based disinfectants and can’t be effectively removed by many filters. Cryptosporidia can also survive in the environment for many months at varying temperatures, though the parasite can be destroyed by freezing or boiling.
The first signs and symptoms of cryptosporidium infection usually appear within a week after infection and may include:
- Watery diarrhea
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Stomach cramps or pain
Symptoms may last for up to two weeks, though they may come and go sporadically for up to a month, even in people with healthy immune systems. Some people with cryptosporidium infection may have no symptoms.
When to see a doctor
Seek medical attention if you develop watery diarrhea that does not get better within a few days.