Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that lives in the intestines of infected animals and people, and is shed in manure and feces. It is the most common cause of waterborne illness in the United States. Both the parasite and the disease caused by the parasite are often called simply “Crypto”.
Symptoms of Cryptosporidium food poisoning include watery diarrhea (most common), abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, fever, and dehydration. People affected with Crypto can also see weight loss due to the diarrhea. Symptoms don’t start until at least 2 days after being infected; in some cases, the symptoms may not start for up to 10 days after being infected (the average is 7 days). This means it can be difficult to pinpoint the source of contamination. The symptoms can last for 1-2 weeks, or even longer.
Crypto can cause very severe, watery diarrhea. Most people who have Cryptosporidium food poisoning will get over the symptoms of the disease in 1-2 weeks, with plenty of rest and fluids. Some people may need to see a doctor or be hospitalized for complications associated with diarrhea, such as dehydration and weight loss.
Crypto parasites are shed in stool from the time the symptoms start, and continue to be shed for weeks after the symptoms pass. As with other food-borne illnesses, young children, older adults, pregnant women, and anyone with a compromised immune system are at the highest risk for becoming infected with Crypto. In addition, anyone who drinks untreated water such as backpackers or hikers, people who travel internationally, or even swimmers are at a higher risk for becoming infected with Crypto. Anyone who has contact with someone infected with Crypto is at risk for getting the disease. Personal hygiene is very important to stop the spread of Crypto.
Crypto is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can affect animals and people. Crypto can be passed back and forth between people and animals. People who handle animals who are infected with Crypto are also at risk for getting the disease. People who are infected with Crypto can also pass the infection to animals.
The most common way to become infected with Cryptosporidium is from drinking contaminated water or through contact with someone who is infected with Crypto. Foods can also carry Crypto if they came in contact with water that was contaminated.
Farmers and food processors do their best to prevent contamination with Crypto by using treated water for their animals to drink and to water their crops. Meat processing plants are inspected and cleaned to reduce contamination with any type of bacteria or parasite. Produce is washed before it gets to your grocery store. Unfortunately, contamination with Crypto can still happen, even with all these safe guards in place.
It is possible to reduce your family’s risk of becoming sick from Crypto with a few easy at-home practices.
- Practice good personal hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom or changing a diaper, and before preparing food.
- Do not drink any untreated water (swimming pools, hot tubs, fountains, streams, etc).
- Wash all produce before preparing it (except bagged, pre-washed produce).
- Use a food thermometer to know when meats are fully cooked.
- Perishable foods should not be kept at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.
Remember, signs of Cryptosporidium food poisoning don’t start to show until up to 10 days after the contaminated food was eaten. It might be difficult to pinpoint exactly what was contaminated with Cryptosporidium to make you sick. Call a doctor if anyone in your family has diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, vomiting, or any other signs that you think might be food poisoning.