Everything You Need to Know About Cyclospora Infection

Let’s talk about natural cyclosporiasis treatments.  Yes, there are natural options for helping your body overcome this digestive infection that’s making headlines all over the place right now!  Like other intestinal illnesses, it can be improved by taking care of your normal gut microbes, reducing inflammation and strengthening your immune system.  But to understand how all of that works, let’s chat about cyclospora infection, what they are, how they work and why you should know about them!

How Common is Cyclosporiasis?

At the time of writing, there have been 34 documented outbreaks in the US since the 1990’s.  It was once considered a rare infection but it’s becoming more common.  Each time there’s an outbreak, at least a few people fall ill.  Sometimes, though, hundreds of people get sick.  These larger outbreaks are usually linked to commercially grown vegetable or salad products.  This explains why so many people get sick at once because thousands of different customers can buy a single contaminated crop.

What Causes the Cyclospora Infection?

Cyclosporiasis is an infection that affects your gut, giving you traveler’s diarrhea.  It comes from a single-celled life form called Cyclospora cayetanensis.  Single-cell organisms are exactly as they sound – their entire body is just one, single cell.  They live in colonies, where they share a food source so that they can reproduce and the colony will grow.

Bacteria are the most well-known single-cell life, followed closely by viruses and algae.  But there are many other types of these primitive life forms and Cyclospora is part of the family known as protozoa.  Of course, the technicalities of naming schemes aren’t that important!

What you really need to know is how to recognize when there’s a chance you could have this sneaky protozoan.  Cyclosporiasis is difficult to diagnose and often gets confused with other gut infections, such as giardia which has virtually identical symptoms!  It’s useful to know more about the cyclospora themselves so you can tell if it’s likely you have cyclosporiasis rather than another gut infection.

Stained Cyclospora cayetanensis under a microscope.  Image by Melanie Moser is in the public domain. 

What Makes Protozoa Harmful?

Well, not all protozoa are harmful.  Some protozoa live in your gut and do no harm at all, while others will definitely make you sick.  Cyclospora is not a friendly microbe, and if you ingest it, there’s a high chance you’ll be unwell for at least a few days.

Cyclospora enters your body from contaminated food.  When they reach your intestines, they move into the cells that line your gut. There they incubate for around one week. During this time, you won’t have symptoms.  But once they become active, they hijack your cells and use them as a food source.

This damages or kills some of your gut cells, leading to inflammation in your gut.  The inflammation is thought to be the main cause of symptoms.  

It’s worth noting that when gut cells die, new ones replace them.  So, you’re not just missing gut cells if you get cyclosporiasis.  But the new cells are immature so they can’t function as well as they should.  This can lead to reduced digestive function, which can also cause symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of Cyclosporiasis?

You could be unwell for a few days, a week, or even months.  But usually, cyclosporiasis will go away on its own. It depends on how strong your immunity is and how healthy your gut is.  Generally, people with lowered immunity will be sicker, longer.

Symptoms of cyclosporiasis are:

  • Abdominal bloating and gas
  • Gut cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

It’s likely you’ll have no appetite while you’re sick and, if it lasts for longer than a week or two, you’ll probably start to lose weight.  If you have a severe case, you might also have vomiting.  Symptoms are very similar to “traveler’s diarrhea” and other types of gut infection.  Alarm bells should be going off if you think you have traveler’s diarrhea and you haven’t traveled anywhere!

A mild case of cyclosporiasis could be almost unrecognizable.  If you just had a slight change of bowel movements with a bit of gas and you felt mildly nauseous, would you take yourself to the doctor to get tested for cyclosporiasis?  It’s unlikely! But that’s how it could show up if you’re generally healthy and ingested food that was only lightly contaminated.

If it goes on for weeks or months, cyclosporiasis could start to look more like a chronically inflamed gut, with or without diarrhea.  Then it becomes even less recognizable and could lead onto other, more long-term digestive complaints. For example, in people with AIDS, whose immune systems struggle to fight infections, cyclospora can lead to gallbladder disease.

Learn More about the Importance of Your Gut Health: Click Here

Although there have been minimal studies done on the long-term implications of having a chronic cyclospora infection, we do know that it causes inflammation in the gut wall.  And we know that chronic gut inflammation from parasitic infections is linked to the following conditions:

How does Cyclosporiasis Spread?

Cyclospora cayetanensis lives on fresh vegetable products.  The 2018 outbreak in the States has been linked to both McDonald’s salads and Del Monte vegetable trays.  The companies recalled thousands of servings of fresh produce to try to stop the outbreak.

The cyclospora gets on produce through contamination with fecal matter of infected persons.  This can come from poor hygiene when workers don’t wash their hands properly after using the toilet.  Or it can come from contaminated water. For example, using untreated water to irrigate crops.

How is Cyclosporiasis Diagnosed?

Diagnosis can only be done in a lab.  So if you want to be tested for cyclosporiasis, you need to have a stool sample sent away for processing.  It can also be identified from a biopsy. Because it’s so difficult to recognize, a single negative result from the lab doesn’t guarantee that you don’t have it.  Sometimes it takes multiple tests to positively identify Cyclospora cayetanensis.

In the test, first, your stool sample or biopsy tissue is analyzed under a microscope to see if the protozoa can be visually recognized.  They’re also tested for Cyclospora cayetanensis DNA.  

Then, the microbial population, which scientists removed from your stool sample, grows (in a petri dish) for a few days and the scientists keep an eye on them.  Cyclospora change shape, putting themselves into a dormant state so that they can survive without a food source. This is known as sporulation, and seeing sporulation structures in the petri dish points clearly towards a positive diagnosis of cyclosporiasis.

What are Standard Cyclosporiasis Treatments?

Often there’s no need to treat cyclosporiasis, because your body is able to resolve cyclospora infection by itself.  

But, if your doctor decides you do need to treat your infection, the standard treatment involves the use of an antibiotic combination called co-trimoxazole, or trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole.  It contains one part trimethoprim and five parts sulfamethoxazole.  Trade names for this antibiotic mixture include Bactrim, Septra, Cotrim and Sulfatrim.  There are many others.

Unfortunately, these antibiotics aren’t suitable for everyone. This is partially because of the way they work (blocking the production of vitamin B9 (folate) so the cyclospora can’t reproduce), but also because of how your body detoxifies it, and its structure.

When You Can’t Take Co-trimoxazole

Co-trimoxazole keeps folate away from the cyclospora, but also lowers the amount of folate your body has to use, too.  Lowering your folate levels means it’s not a good idea to take co-trimoxazole when pregnant.  Folate is just too important for your baby’s development.  (Note: if you aren’t pregnant and take co-trimoxazole, it’s a good idea to take a folate supplement when your treatment is over.)

Since co-trimoxazole is removed from your body by the liver and kidneys, it’s not suitable for people who have serious problems with these organs (liver or kidney disease).  

Sulfamethoxazole contains a structure called a sulfonamide.  Many people are allergic to medicines with this structure, a condition called a “sulfa allergy”.  If you’re doctor has diagnosed you with a sulfa allergy, this antibiotic isn’t safe for you.  

Finally, the antibiotics in this drug also interact with other medications, so isn’t safe for people who are taking particular prescriptions.  Your doctor or pharmacist will help you determine if taking your medications with this cyclospora treatment is safe.

Unfortunately, there’s no other pharmacy treatment known at this time that’s as effective as co-trimoxazole.  So, people who can’t take this antibiotic have to take a less potent medicine or rely on their body’s own immunity to recover.  Of course, they can also make use of natural cyclosporiasis treatments.

When You Should Use Standard Treatment

While you don’t usually need to treat cyclosporiasis at all, there are people and situations that absolutely require you to see your doctor for standard treatment.  

As we’ve already touched on, your experience of cyclosporiasis depends a lot on how strong your immune system is.  The following is a list of people who have a generally weaker immune system and need to see their doctor if they have symptoms of cyclosporiasis:

  • HIV or AIDS patients
  • Diabetics
  • People over the age of 70
  • Children under the age of 10
  • Cancer patients
  • People with a congenital immune deficiency
  • Organ transplant patients
  • Alcoholics and drug users
  • Malnourished individuals

What are Natural Cyclosporiasis Treatments?

So, is it possible to cure cyclospora without antibiotics?  Well, you already know that most healthy people will overcome it with no treatment at all.  But that doesn’t take away your misery when you’re spending your day between the sick bed and the toilet.  So, let’s look at how you can ease some of the nasty symptoms that come with cyclospora infection at home, naturally.

Preventing Dehydration

Staying hydrated and replacing electrolytes is essential to get through a gut infection.  You can get electrolyte powder or liquid from a chemist or even a supermarket.  If you’re too unwell to leave the house, you might find some in your first aid kit.   

Alternatively, you can dissolve a half teaspoon of regular table salt and six teaspoons of sugar in a liter of water or sip a full sugar juice while nibbling on salted crackers.  Coconut water also works well as a natural electrolyte replacement and rehydrator.

Take small sips at regular intervals, so that you provide constant moisture to your suffering body.  If you try to drink too much at once, you might trigger a bout of vomiting or diarrhea because the fluid will aggravate your already inflamed gut lining.  

During the worst of the illness, it’s okay to take a break from your rehydration program, especially if you can’t keep it down anyway.  Just make sure you don’t go for too long without a drink because dehydration is the most serious and dangerous complication of diarrhea.

Easing Gut Cramps

The pain is simply awful, isn’t it?  And just when you think you’re feeling better, another wave of cramping hits.  Your body really wants to make sure your gut is completely empty! You can support it by not eating until you’ve passed the diarrhea and vomiting stage of the infection.  

It’s perfectly safe to go without food for 24-48 hours.  If you’re really unwell, you’ll find that you can’t keep food down anyway.  So, you’re best to go with that and let your body do it thing. Your gut is busy fighting an infection, it doesn’t have the capacity to digest food at the same time.

You can use heat to help your intestinal muscles to relax.  Apply a hot water bottle or heat pad to your belly, and switch it around to your back every so often.  The heat will calm and soothe your cramping gut. You can also use a muscle relaxant balm or oil, applied to the skin on your abdomen.  Even though you can’t eat or drink, you can get medicines into your bloodstream through your skin.  Transdermal magnesium oil would be a great option if you happen to have some on hand or one of your loved ones is willing to do some shopping for you.  You could also use whatever you have in the medicine cabinet, if there’s a sports rub or something similar, it could help.

Managing Your Fever

Unfortunately, fever is a natural and normal part of overcoming an infection.  If you have a fever, try to be thankful that your body is doing such a good job of getting rid of that nasty protozoa.  Your internal thermostat is likely to be out of whack and you might feel cold, achy and shivering at the same time as your forehead is burning up and you’re sweating.

Raising your body temperature is an important way of fighting an infection, so you’re best to go with it.  You can support a fever by keeping warm and even letting yourself get hot. Adults are safe with a body temperature of up to 104°F (40°C).  So, if you have a thermometer you can monitor your own temperature and know that you’re still okay as long as it’s below this threshold.  (If your temperature creeps up past this point, you should consider seeing a doctor).

If your fever is making you uncomfortable, you can cool yourself down by taking a shower or bath in tepid water.  Be careful to lower your body temperature gradually and gently, taking some of the heat away but not all of it. A cool, damp cloth on your forehead and neck can sometimes be enough to relieve tension in your head.

Nausea and Diarrhea

Cyclospora parasites are going to leave your body in your feces.  So, using medication to stop diarrhea is not a great idea.  If you reduce cramping, this will also have the effect of easing diarrhea.  

Peppermint, chamomile and ginger teas can be soothing to your gut and can help to reduce nausea without physically stopping your diarrhea.  They’re easy to make and the taste is delicate and sweet, not too bitter. You can add honey to make the taste even better, and the sugar content in the honey will give you some energy while eating is difficult.  

As with all medicines, food, and drink, there might be a stage where you can’t take anything at all and you’ll have to ride it out until your gut has settled slightly.

To help your gut out, even more, you can also consideration take a probiotic supplement. Probiotics improve gut health and help soothe your gut wall and fight off invaders, like cyclospora.  Liquid preparations are probably going to be best for you here because they’re the easiest to digest.  If you already have capsules in your supplies, these will be fine, too. But you might have to wait until you’ve passed the worst of the infection before you can actually keep them down.

Related: Can Probiotics Improve Gut Health?

How Can You Prevent Cyclosporiasis?

Washing fresh vegetables before you eat them goes a long way towards preventing cyclospora infection.  But if your food has these protozoa living on it, there’s no guarantee that rinsing is going to remove all of them.  There might be some left even after thorough washing.  And if you’re eating at a restaurant, you’re at the mercy of someone else’s kitchen and food preparation standards.

Since you can’t guarantee your food isn’t contaminated with cyclospora, your best bet for making sure you avoid serious cyclosporiasis symptoms is to strengthen your own immunity.  

Ways you can keep your immune system functioning optimally include:

With strong immunity, it’s possible to have cyclospora move through your body without causing symptoms at all.  Or you might suffer only a very mild case compared to others around you. A shorter recovery time is another benefit of having a strong immunity.  You also have a better chance of making it back to full health rather than having repeats of your symptoms in the following weeks or months.

Take Home Message

Cyclospora infection was once very rare, but it’s becoming more common as people eat more imported foods from areas where the parasite likes to live.  The cyclospora organism is a protozoan, which is similar to a bacterium. It comes from fecal contamination, through bad hygiene practices or untreated water, and it gets into your body on raw vegetable products.  

Once inside your gut, it incubates for a week, then it wakes up and starts causing trouble. It causes inflammation in your gut wall and kills some of your intestinal cells. This gives you diarrhea, gas, bloating, gut cramps, nausea, and fever.

Standard treatment is co-trimoxazole, an antibiotic combination.  Not everyone can take this, including pregnant women and people with sulfa allergy.  People who have weakened immune systems should definitely seek medical treatment if possible.  

Most cases of cyclospora infection resolve themselves over a period of a few days. You can support your body at home during this time by using natural home remedies to ease your symptoms.  This means preventing dehydration, easing gut cramps, managing your fever and reducing nausea and diarrhea. People who have healthier gut bacteria and stronger immunity are likely to have milder symptoms, and then recover sooner and more fully.

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