Water Lurkers: Cryptosporidium and Giardia

Disclaimer: I am not handing out medical advice. I am trying to warn you why you shouldn’t drink water that could potentially be a breeding ground for two particularly nasty bugs called cryptosporidium and giardia. In order to do that, we have to talk about what they are, what they might do and how you can help to prevent getting them in the first place. I’m not a doctor. I’m just a nurse with a hobby and a penchant for reading through unfathomably long scholarly research articles. I hope this helps you but remember, absolutely nothing you read out here on the interwebs can replace the common sense of getting ACTUAL medical advice when you need it even if WebMD diagnosed you with God knows what. Leave WebMD alone and talk to the healthcare professionals who actually know you and your body.

Disclaimer II: I have to warn you, if you have a weak stomach, wait until after you eat before you read through this blog. This will serve as your only trigger warning.

According to the World Health Organization, around 2 million people die each year due to water borne illnesses. Out of that 2 million, 842,000 die as a result of diarrheal disease. While most water problems exist in developing countries, pathogens that can kill you have little interest in geography. Toxins and invaders can sneak into your water anywhere there are careless people.

Water borne illnesses occur when there are toxins present in the water such as bacteria, fungi, parasites, viruses and other pathogens. The more contaminated water you ingest, the sicker you will get. If you plan to survive and or help prevent significant water borne illness when SHTF, you’ll need to filter and purify any water you intend to ingest.

Cryptosporidium and Giardia are the two biggest culprits behind making people sick after they drink dirty water. Both cryptosporidium and giardia are microscopic parasites that can cause horrible cases of diarrhea, vomiting, a loss of appetite, abdominal pain, fever, weight loss and a host of other uncomfortable problems.

Cryptosporidium is a parasite that lives in the guts of infected humans and animals. Giardia is also a parasite that lives in the intestinal tracts of infected humans and animals. Water becomes infected with both giardia and cryptosporidium when it’s exposed to feces that travels past infected parts of the small intestine and colon. It stands to reason that your water source may become contaminated if it’s exposed to animals, birds, fish and even hygienically challenged people that carry cryptosporidium and or giardia. Essentially, both parasites are transmitted through fecal matter which you in turn ingest. (There it is again. Poop in your water can make you sick.)

Giardia attaches to the intestinal wall and much like a suction cup, it absorbs the nutrients it needs to survive right from the villi (tiny hair like fibers that line your intestinal tract which are responsible for transporting nutrients from your food into your bloodstream). When you’re infected with giardia, you might have abdominal pain, nausea, flatulence, anorexia (a strong desire not to eat), steatorrhea (high fat content stool or loose stool that’s not quite diarrhea), weight loss and if you ingest enough of them, malabsorption syndrome (what happens to your body when you cannot ingest nutrients over a period of time). Giardia is a selfish critter as it takes what it needs from you without considering the cost to the host.

Cryptosporidium is also a parasite and it too attaches to the intestinal tract only it burrows itself into the intestinal wall (spaces in between the villi). This makes it tougher to get rid of and can lead to intense watery diarrhea, dehydration, anorexia (a strong desire not to eat), abdominal cramps, abdominal pain, fever, nausea, vomiting and inflammation of the bile duct, liver, pancreas and gallbladder. Inflammation may not seem like a big deal but it truly can be problematic. It’s sort of like having a toothache in your gut and you can’t do a thing about it or dull the pain. When any of those organs are inflamed, they’re not working as intended which means you’re not gaining anything from eating -- cryptosporidium and giardia certainly are.

Significant infections of giardia and cryptosporidium require medical treatment. When SHTF, I can’t imagine too many doses of Flagyl or Zithromax lying around. Your best bet is to do everything you can to avoid ingesting either of them -- SHTF or not. Getting sick with either of these two parasites sounds about as much fun as having your foot run over by a tank.

How do I get Cryptosporidium and Giardia out of my water?!

You cannot tell if your water is contaminated with either of these parasites simply by looking at the water. Clarity of the water is never an indication of safety regardless of the water source.

To help reduce the chances of getting sick with cryptosporidium and or giardia:

  • Boil water for at least 5 minutes.

  • Treat with iodine and or chlorine tabs.

  • Filter with charcoal

  • Boil it again

  • Filter it again.

  • Lather, rinse, repeat until you’re satisfied especially if the water source is questionable.

  • High doses of heat can kill or severely weaken both of these pathogens.

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