Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal disease cryptosporidiosis. Both the parasite and the disease are commonly known as “Crypto.”
The parasite is protected by an outer shell that allows it to survive outside the body for long periods of time and makes it very tolerant to chlorine disinfection.
While this parasite can be spread in several different ways, water (drinking water and recreational water) is the most common way to spread the parasite. Cryptosporidium is a leading cause of waterborne disease among humans in the United States.
Symptoms of cryptosporidiosis generally begin 2 to 10 days (average 7 days) after becoming infected with the parasite. The most common symptom of cryptosporidiosis is watery diarrhea. Symptoms include:
- Watery diarrhea
- Stomach cramps or pain
- Weight loss
Some people with Crypto will have no symptoms at all.
Symptoms usually last about 1 to 2 weeks (with a range of a few days to 4 or more weeks) in persons with healthy immune systems. Occasionally, people may experience a recurrence of symptoms after a brief period of recovery before the illness ends. Symptoms can come and go for up to 30 days.
While the small intestine is the site most commonly affected, in immunocompromised persons Cryptosporidium infections could possibly affect other areas of the digestive tract or the respiratory tract.
People with weakened immune systems may develop serious, chronic, and sometimes fatal illness. Examples of people with weakened immune systems include:
- people with AIDS;
- those with inherited diseases that affect the immune system; and
- cancer and transplant patients who are taking certain immunosuppressive drugs.
The risk of developing severe disease may differ depending on each person’s degree of immune suppression.
- Most people who have healthy immune systems will recover without treatment.
- Diarrhea can be managed by drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
- People who are in poor health or who have weakened immune systems are at higher risk for more severe and prolonged illness.
- Young children and pregnant women may be more susceptible to dehydration resulting from diarrhea and should drink plenty of fluids while ill.
- Rapid loss of fluids from diarrhea may be especially life threatening to babies. Therefore, parents should talk to their healthcare providers about fluid replacement therapy options for infants.
- Anti-diarrheal medicine may help slow down diarrhea, but a healthcare provider should be consulted before such medicine is taken.
- HIV-positive individuals who suspect they have cryptosporidiosis should contact their healthcare provider. For those persons with AIDS, anti-retroviral therapy that improves the immune status will also decrease or eliminate symptoms of cryptosporidiosis. However, even if symptoms disappear, cryptosporidiosis is often not curable and the symptoms may return if the immune status worsens.