Overview

Blastocystis hominis is a microscopic organism that sometimes is found in the stools of people who have ingested contaminated food or water. It can be found in healthy people who aren't having digestive symptoms, and it's also sometimes found in the stools of people who have diarrhea, abdominal pain or other gastrointestinal problems.

Researchers don't fully understand the role Blastocystis hominis plays, if any, in causing disease. Certain forms of the organism might be more likely to be linked to an infection with symptoms. Most commonly, blastocystis simply lives in a person's digestive tract without causing harm.

Blastocystis hominis, also known as blastocystis spp or Blastocystis hominis infection, usually clears on its own. There are no proven treatments for these infections.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms possibly associated with Blastocystis hominis include:

  • Watery diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Excessive gas (flatulence)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you have signs and symptoms, such as diarrhea or cramps, that last longer than three days.

Causes

Blastocystis is a parasite — a microscopic single-celled organism (protozoan). Many protozoans normally live in your gastrointestinal tract and are harmless or even helpful; others cause disease.

It's not clear whether blastocystis causes disease. Most people who carry the organism have no signs or symptoms, but it's also found in people who have diarrhea and other digestive problems. Blastocystis often appears with other organisms, so it's not known whether it causes disease.

Experts suspect that blastocystis gets into the digestive system when people eat contaminated food or are exposed to the stool of a contaminated person, such as when changing a diaper in a child care setting. Rates of the organism in stool increase where there's inadequate sanitation and poor personal hygiene.

Risk factors

Blastocystis hominis is common, and anyone can have the organism in his or her stools. You might be at higher risk if you travel or live where sanitation is inadequate or where the water might not be safe or if you handle contaminated animals, such as pigs and poultry.

Complications

If you have diarrhea associated with Blastocystis hominis, it's likely to be self-limiting. However, anytime you have diarrhea, you lose vital fluids, salts and minerals, which can lead to dehydration. Children are especially vulnerable to dehydration.

Prevention

You might be able to prevent Blastocystis hominis or other gastrointestinal infection by taking precautions, especially while traveling in high-risk countries.

Watch what you eat

The general rule of thumb is this: If you can't boil it, cook it or peel it — forget it.

  • Avoid food from street vendors.
  • Don't eat soft-cooked eggs.
  • Avoid unpasteurized milk and dairy products, including ice cream.
  • Avoid raw or undercooked meat, fish and shellfish.
  • Steer clear of moist food at room temperature, such as sauces and buffet offerings.
  • Eat foods that are well-cooked and served hot.
  • Stick to fruits and vegetables that you can peel yourself, such as bananas, oranges and avocados. Stay away from salads and fruits you can't easily peel, such as grapes and berries.
  • Avoid frozen pops and flavored ice.
  • Skip salsa and other condiments made with fresh ingredients.

Don't drink the water

When visiting high-risk countries, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Avoid unsterilized water — from tap, well or stream. If you need to drink or wash fruits or vegetables in local water, boil it for at least three minutes and let it cool to room temperature.
  • Avoid ice cubes or fruit juices made with tap water.
  • Keep your mouth closed while showering.
  • Use bottled water to brush your teeth.
  • Make sure hot beverages, such as coffee or tea, are steaming hot.

Feel free to drink canned or bottled drinks in their original containers — including water, carbonated beverages, beer or wine — as long as you break the seals on the containers yourself. Wipe off any can or bottle before drinking or pouring.

You can chemically disinfect water with iodine or chlorine. Iodine tends to be more effective, but limit its use, because too much iodine can be harmful to your body.

Take precautions against passing a parasite to others

If you have Blastocystis hominis or another gastrointestinal infection, good personal hygiene can help keep you from spreading the infection to others:

  • Wash hands with soap and water frequently, especially after using the toilet and before, during and after handling food. Rub soapy, wet hands together for at least 20 seconds before rinsing. Lather the backs of your hands and between your fingers. Dry your hands well with a clean towel.

    If soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

  • Wash hands well after changing a diaper, especially if you work in a child care center, even if you wear gloves.

Jan. 29, 2019
References
  1. Jameson JL, et al., eds. Protozoal infections. In: Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 20th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2018. https://accessmedicine.mhmedical.com. Accessed Dec. 8, 2018.
  2. Blastocystis spp. FAQs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/blastocystis/faqs.html. Accessed Dec. 8, 2018.
  3. Leder K, et al. Blastocystis species. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Dec. 8, 2018.
  4. Parasites — Nonpathogenic (harmless) intestinal protozoa. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/nonpathprotozoa/biology.html. Accessed Dec. 8, 2018.
  5. Food and water safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/food-water-safety. Accessed Dec. 8, 2018.
  6. Avoid foodborne illness when traveling abroad. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.foodsafety.gov/blog/international_travel.html. Accessed Dec. 8, 2018.
  7. When & how to wash your hands. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html. Accessed Dec. 8, 2018.
  8. Freedman S. Oral rehydration therapy. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Dec. 8, 2018.

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