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Who is at risk for amebiasis?

Amebiasis is common in tropical countries with underdeveloped sanitation. It’s most common in the Indian subcontinent, parts of Central and South America, Mexico, and parts of Africa. It’s relatively rare in the United States.

People with the greatest risk for amebiasis include:

  • people who have traveled to tropical locations where there’s underdeveloped sanitation
  • immigrants from tropical countries with underdeveloped sanitary conditions
  • people who live in institutions with underdeveloped sanitary conditions, such as prisons
  • men who have sex with other men
  • people with suppressed immune systems and other health conditions

What causes amebiasis?

E. histolytica is a single-celled protozoan that usually enters the human body when a person ingests cysts through food or water. It can also enter the body through direct contact with fecal matter.

The cysts are a relatively inactive form of the parasite that can live for several months in the soil or environment where they were deposited in feces. The microscopic cysts are present in soil, fertilizer, or water that’s been contaminated with infected feces.

Food handlers may transmit the cysts while preparing or handling food. Transmission is also possible during anal sex, oral-anal sex, and colonic irrigation.

When cysts enter the body, they lodge in the digestive tract. They then release an invasive, active form of the parasite called a trophozoite. The parasites reproduce in the digestive tract and migrate to the large intestine. There, they can burrow into the intestinal wall or the colon.

What are the symptoms of amebiasis?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about 10 to 20 percentTrusted Source of people who have amebiasis become ill from it.

While most people have no symptoms, amebiasis can cause bloody diarrhea, colitis, and tissue destruction. The person can then spread the disease by releasing new cysts into the environment through infected feces.

When symptoms do occur, they tend to appear 1 to 4 weeks after ingestion of the cysts. Symptoms at this stage tend to be mild and include loose stools and stomach cramping.

In a rare complication of the disease, the trophozoites may breach the intestinal walls, enter the bloodstream, and travel to various internal organs. They most commonly end up in the liver, but may also infect the heart, lungs, brain, or other organs.

If trophozoites invade an internal organ, they can potentially cause:

  • abscesses
  • infections
  • severe illness
  • death

How is amebiasis diagnosed?

Your doctor may suspect amebiasis after asking about your recent health and travel history.

It can be difficult to diagnose amebiasis because E. histolytica looks a lot like other parasites, such as E. dispar, which is occasionallyTrusted Source seen with E. histolytica but is generally considered nonpathogenic, meaning it’s not associated with disease.

To detect E. histolytica and rule out other possible infections, your doctor may order tests such as stool samples and antigen testing.