Giardia - Chronic Fatigue and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Feeling tired? A bit bloated? Got some funny burps? And, yuck, some greasy stools? It may not be anything to worry about, but it may also be something that's common and treatable, but often not recognized - Giardia, a common parasite that can infect us.

Giardia lamblia

It's a disease that can infect your puppy - and you. It can be caught from hiking, foreign travel, well water - and much less likely, your puppy.

Yep, giardia. It often goes unnoticed or is thought to be only irritable bowel syndrome. It, however, is a disease that can be treated and get better.

It's important to avoid as it can cause prolonged irritable bowel symptoms and fatigue.

What is the disease like?

The disease causes some abdominal discomfort, with diarrhea and cramping. It also causes quite noticeably sulfuric-smelling burps, gas, and greasy stools that float. It can lead to chronic fatigue in some. The symptoms, without treatment, can persist a long time, and be upsetting for many. This can lead to weight loss.

There is rarely fever.

Can it be chronic?

The disease can last a long time without treatment. It can also last during treatment and can take weeks to go away.

For some, however, it causes an irritable bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue for years after infection - even after treatment. At this point, antibiotics won't take away the symptoms.

It's important to avoid this infection.

Who is at risk?

  • Hikers and campers drinking lake, river, or well water
  • Swimming and ingesting water from an infected lake or river
  • Travelers to countries where Giardia is common
  • Children in daycare
  • Contact with some infected animals
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Anyone in contact with or eating food prepared by someone with Giardia

    The infection is less caused by infections from pets than was previously thought. It does infect cats and dogs, especially young ones, but usually different strains.

    How is it treated?

    Antibiotics (particularly metronidazole) are used to treat giardia. The antibiotics will likely need to be taken for weeks more than once a day.

    Metronidazole is the one antibiotic you really don't want to take with alcohol. It is actually a drug given to people with alcoholism because it makes you feel pretty terrible if you drink alcohol after taking it.

    What causes it?

    A tiny parasite that is ingested. 

    How does it spread?

    The infection can be ingested in contaminated water. The water may seem fresh - it may be well water or from a lake or river - but microscopically it is contaminated. (It's actually often called beaver fever as beavers have been blamed for contaminating the water).

    Contaminated food can also spread the infection. A food preparer can easily contaminate food. A person who is infected can shed one to ten billion cysts in their stool. It might take as few as 10 cysts to infect someone.

    It can also spread at daycare if hand hygiene needs to be improved.

    It can spread through sex (oral-anal contact).

    How do I avoid infecting anyone else?

    Wash your hands well after using the toilet - and before preparing food.

    How long does it take for symptoms to start?

    Most in 10 days. Some may have symptoms as quickly as 3 days after exposure. Others may take up to 3 weeks.

    How long does it last without treatment?

    The infection usually lasts 2-6 weeks but it can continue for months.

    How many cases are reported in the US?

    Just under 20,000 are reported a year, but many likely undiagnosed or reported. 

    When does it occur?

    The late summer is when it is most common.

    Can my pets get sick?

    Young pets, puppies, and kittens, in particular, may become infected and shed large amounts of giardia.

    They may also have nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gas, abdominal discomfort and cramps.

    However, the type of Giardia your pet is infected with is not always the human type. So it's likely that you will not give the infection to your pet. But it's possible.

    It's important though always to be careful with dog and cat waste and to make sure you wash your hands.

    Which animals share the infection with humans?

    Pets and other animals can get Giardia, but fortunately, they often don't pass it to us. In fact, the type of Giardia they get is often different from the types that infect us.

    There are different subtypes of Giardia. A-II is most common in humans, but is a human only disease. The subtype A-I infects livestock, deer, muskrats, beavers, voles, guinea pigs, ferrets, dogs, cats - and humans. Also infecting humans is subtype B (livestock, chinchillas, beavers, marmosets, rodents).

    Hence, dogs, cats, ferrets, and guinea pigs can share guard infections.

    This disease is a reason to have well water tested.

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