What is a hookworm infection?
Hookworms are parasitic worms that can infect humans in countries with poor sanitation and a warm, moist climate. This means they live off other living things. Hookworms affect your lungs, skin, and small intestine. Humans contract hookworms through hookworm larvae found in dirt contaminated by feces.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hookworm infections occur in an estimated 576 to 740 million people worldwide. It mainly affects people in developing nations in the tropics and subtropics due to poor sanitation.
Causes hookworm infections
Parasitic hookworms cause these infections. The two major types of hookworms that cause infection are Necator americanus and Ancylostoma duodenale.
The eggs of these hookworms end up on the ground after passing through human feces. They hatch into larvae, which stay in the soil until they have a chance to break through human skin.
Symptoms of hookworm infection
You might not have any symptoms from the infection if you’re otherwise healthy, have a low parasite burden, and eat foods with plenty of iron.
If you do experience symptoms, they generally start with itchiness and a small rash caused by an allergic reaction in the area that the larvae entered your skin. This is generally followed by diarrhea as the hookworms grow in your intestine. Other symptoms include:
- blood in your stool
- a loss of appetite
- itchy rash
- abdominal pain
- a fever
- colic, or cramping and excessive crying in infants
- intestinal cramps
Complications of hookworm infection
If you have a hookworm infection that lasts a long time, you could become anemic. Anemia is characterized by a low red blood cell count, which can contribute to heart failure in severe cases. Anemia results from hookworms feeding on your blood. You’re more at risk of having severe anemia if you also don’t eat well, are pregnant, or have malaria.
Other complications that can develop from these infections include nutritional deficiencies and a condition known as ascites. This condition is caused by serious protein loss and results in fluid buildup in your abdomen.
Children who have frequent hookworm infections can experience slow growth and mental development from losing iron and protein.
Prevention hookworm infection
You can lower your risk of becoming infected with hookworms by:
- properly cleaning and cooking food
- practicing proper handwashing
- wearing shoes when you walk outdoors, especially in areas that might have feces in the soil
- drinking safe water
In areas where hookworm infections are common, improving sanitation can reduce the number of infections. This includes using better sewage-disposal systems and reducing the frequency of outdoor human defecation.
Some developing nations practice preventive treatment. This involves treating groups of people who are at a higher risk of having infections. These include:
- pregnant women
- women who are lactating
- women of childbearing age
- adults who work in occupations that put them at risk for heavy infections
- young children
Treatment of hookworm infections
Treatment for hookworm infections aims to get rid of the parasites, improve nutrition, and treat complications from anemia. Your doctor will prescribe medications that destroy parasites, such as albendazole (Albenza) and mebendazole (Emverm). These medications are generally taken once to treat the infection.
Your doctor might also have you take an iron supplement if you have anemia. Your doctor will also help you recover from any nutritional deficiencies you have. If you have ascites, they’ll ask you to add additional protein to your diet.
How are hookworm infections spread?
You can become infected with hookworms by coming into contact with soil that contains their larvae. The larvae enter your skin, travel through your bloodstream, and enter your lungs. They are carried to your small intestine when you cough them out of the lung and swallow. Fully grown, they can live in your small intestine for a year or more before passing through your feces.
People who live in warm climates in areas with poor hygiene and sanitation are more at risk of developing hookworm infections.
Can my pet make me sick?
Hookworm infections can occur in pets, especially puppies and kittens. If your pet has an infection, you can get it indirectly. You won’t get it from petting your dog or cat. The eggs are passed in your pet’s stool and hatch into larvae. The eggs and larvae are found in the dirt where your pet leaves stool. You can get a hookworm infection by touching contaminated dirt with your bare hands or feet. You can also get it by accidentally eating contaminated soil.
To reduce your risk, make sure your pets are vaccinated and dewormed by your veterinarian. Also, avoid walking barefoot in areas where pets leave feces. This is especially important when you might come in contact with animal feces from pets whose health conditions are unknown, such as at a park.