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Imagine a mass of small white worms feeding on the lining of your small intestine. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s a reality that an estimated 576 to 740 million people in the world face, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The parasitic worms, called hookworms, can infect and sicken people and animals.
Hookworms get their name from the hook-like teeth they use to attach themselves to your small intestine. People, dogs, cats and foxes can get hookworms, although some species of hookworm are more likely to cause infection in humans, while others are more likely to affect animals. People or animals infected by hookworms pass hookworm eggs in their feces. Larvae hatch from the eggs and are then accidentally swallowed by humans or animals by drinking infested water, for example, or enter the body through direct contact with the skin. Adult hookworms range in size from ¼ to ½ inch long.
Journey to the Small Intestine
If you drink infected water or eat infected meat, the hookworm larvae travel from your mouth to your small intestine. If hookworm larvae enter your body through your skin, they travel though the bloodstream to the lungs. The lungs and bronchial passages provide the perfect route to the throat. When the worms crawl into the throat, the person or animal swallows to clear the throat, which sends the worms into the digestive system. When larvae reach the small intestine, they latch on to the lining and begun sucking blood. Feeding on blood helps them mature into adult worms. When they’re mature, male and female hookworms mate. A female can produce up to 30,000 eggs per day.
Sick and Tired
Hookworms grow strong while they feed on the blood of their human or animal hosts, but their hosts aren’t so lucky. Some people have no symptoms, while others develop anemia, a condition that occurs when the blood doesn’t contain enough red cells. An animal or person who has anemia might feel tired, lethargic and listless. People with anemia might look pale, while animals might have pale gums. In addition to anemia, symptoms of a hookworm infection in people might include a rash and itching if the larvae entered through the skin, and loss of appetite, abdominal pain, weight loss and diarrhea. Animals also might lose weight. Dewormer medication kills hookworms in pets, and anthelminthic medications kill hookworms in people.
Animals get hookworm no matter where they live in the world because they spend time sniffing around the ground, drinking from questionable water sources and eating other animals that might be infected. Hookworm infections in humans are more common in warm parts of the world that don't have sewer systems or have inadequate sewer systems or sanitation practices. Hookworms are a particular problem in areas in which people defecate on the ground or use human feces to fertilize crops. Walking barefoot over infected soil can lead to infection. Children are at higher risk of infection because they tend to play on the ground.
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