You run a tight ship, your home is clean-ish, you take care when preparing and handling food, and you’ve instilled the importance of hand washing in your children. But you and your family are still at risk of parasitic infection. Professor Firoza Haffejee, a specialist in epidemiology and primary health care explains how to protect your family against worms to Yashmitha Padayachee.
Parasitic worms are an unfortunate, yet normal and very common part of life, that affect millions of South Africans each year. But if you understand how to prevent and treat infestation, you can ensure your family remains worm-free.
How we come into contact with worms
Parasitic eggs can be found in contaminated food and water and in public areas such as playgrounds, especially sand pits. Eggs come into contact with our hands and are eventually ingested.
An adult worm produces hundreds of eggs at a time, and can ‘lay’ eggs more than once a day, depending on the type of worm. The eggs have a tough outer shell that protects it from harsh environmental conditions, and this enables them to lie dormant but viable for years. Parasitic larvae will then live off your body, and grow to adulthood.
Worm infestations are more prevalent in crèche-going children because of the sharing of toys, food, play areas and toilets, and the constant movement of dirty hands to the mouth. Left untreated, a single worm can live for up to eight years due to its ability to manipulate our immune response, all the while growing and reproducing.
Symptoms to watch for
A few common symptoms include, frequent stools that are watery or loose, and smell particularly offensive, along with an increase in bodily gases. These are all a sure sign that there is distress in the digestive tract. Abdominal discomfort and a loss of appetite, or a gain in appetite but no gain in weight are also key indicators of a parasitic infection.
The one to look out for as parents of young children is the maddening ‘itchy bum’. Eggs are often laid close to the anus, and will cause an itching sensation. When scratched, eggs will be exposed to the fingers, and before you know it, the cycle has begun again.
A worm infection will also affect the host’s ability to effectively absorb nutrients leading to weakness, impaired mental and physical development, and even anemia or malnourishment.
Prevention tips and techniques
The main mode of infestation is through the ingestion of viable eggs. To minimise this threat, proper care needs to be taken when handling and preparing food, and basic hygiene practices must be followed.
- Teaching your child to wash hands after using the toilet, playing outside or with a pet, as well as before eating, can help to minimise their risk of infestation.
- Fruits and vegetables must be washed thoroughly before eating.
- Meat products should be prepared correctly to eliminate cysts that may be present in the case of some parasites such as tapeworms.
- Only drink water from a clean source, or boil and cool water before drinking.
- Regularly deworming your entire family, including all pets, will help to control and reduce your risk of re-infection.
A tablet or syrup prophylactic or anthelminthic treatment should be taken every six months from the age of one year. The entire family should be dewormed on the same day, including all household pets.
The specifics of the treatment will depend on the brand supplied by your pharmacist. It could range from a single dose to three consecutive days of treatment.
Most treatments are only able to kill existing adult worms, which is why you need to repeat the treatment every six months.
It is important to remember that a parasitic worm infection can be avoided and, in most cases, treated quite simply. Allowing your children to play outdoors, in playground sand pits or with pets is still okay, but overall hygiene must be encouraged. Deworming on a regular basis will positively contribute to the general health and well-being of your family, and have a positive effect on reducing the spread of parasitic worms.
There has been some debate about whether or not teeth grinding and nose picking are symptoms of a worm infestation. Teeth grinding can be linked to restlessness and anxiety that are byproducts of a build-up of waste and toxins produced by the worm. Nose picking, however, has no known link to worm infections, but can cause re-infection. If eggs are on a child’s finger, they can make their way through the nasal cavity, down to the throat, and the rest of the digestive tract.
Hand washing technique
- Just rinsing your hands off under the tap isn’t enough to dislodge worms. But you don’t need a plethora of antibacterial products either. The key is to be thorough, use soap, rub vigorously, and wash for at least 20 seconds.
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Also ensure you lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. You should be able to sing the Happy Birthday song from beginning to end. Finish off by rinsing your hands well, and then dry them on a clean towel.