Water Drinking Safety in the Back Country, Giardia and Cryptosporidium

Water Drinking Safety- Giardia and Cryptosporidium

Giardia and CryptosporidiumIt is important to be optimistic- to see the glass of water half full, not half empty. One time, though, when it is probably better to see it half empty, is when you are talking about water that has been infested with parasites. Generally this is not a huge threat to your health; however, when planning a camping trip, it is important to consider. The two microscopic parasites that can be found in drinking water are called Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Filtration systems in municipal drinking water are usually not at risk. The purification system tends to inactive the parasites, however, when drinking out of natural water sources, there are some key things you should know about the two parasites in order to remain healthy.

What is a parasite, anyway?

A parasite is a biological organism that feeds off of a host environment without contributing anything to the host. It is a non-mutual relationship. These include hookworms, mistletoe, and many other viruses and bacteria. Giardia and Cryptosporidium are both included in this category as well.

How does it infect humans?

In the case of Giardia and Cryptosporidium, they similarly cause illness. Each parasite will produce cysts that are very resistant to harsh environmental conditions. When ingested, they will germinate, reproduce, and finally make you sick. After feeding, the parasites form new cysts, which are then passed in the feces. Take care to avoid these while hiking and backpacking in the mountains.  Studies with human volunteers have shown that ingestion of only a few cysts can cause illness.

What are the symptoms of the illness?

Symptoms of the parasites, Giardia and Cryptosporidium may include some or all of the following:

  •  Diarrhea
  •  Gas
  •  Stomach or Abdominal Cramps
  •  Weight Loss
  •  Malaise
  •  Nausea
  • Vomiting
  •  Chills
  •   Headache
  • Fever

Symptoms of Giardia usually surface six to 16 days after the initial contact and can continue as long as one month.

Symptoms of Cryptosporidium occur within two to 25 days of infection and usually last one or two weeks; in some cases they stick around for up to a month.

How can it be treated?

Animal feces in the river can cause illness, including giardia and criptoThe positive thing about these illnesses is that they are both generally cleared from healthy people within a month on their own. However they can easily ruin your hiking and backpacking trip.  Medication can be purchased to help with the unfortunate symptoms, such as anti-parasitic drugs or anti-diarrheal drugs. Drinking lots of fluids to remain hydrated is strongly suggested whenever one has diarrhea. Cryptosporidium can especially cause very watery diarrhea. Rehydration therapy is recommended.

Immunocompromised patients, such as those living with AIDS or cancer, might have a harder time coping with the parasites. The symptoms may be much more harsh and perhaps even life threatening. If you are taking any sort of immunosuppressive drugs, be very cautious as well.

There is currently no specific drug treatment to the illnesses.

Can you get sick at home?

The answer is, yes, you could get sick at home. The likelihood is much greater when you are drinking water that has not been through the filtering system. Chlorine and other purifying agents reduce the risk of the parasites greatly. However, there is always a chance.

Tips for Precaution

One strongly recommended way to avoid the parasites is to boil your water before use. Boiling the water for at least one minute will surely rid the water of the two mentioned parasites or any other micro-organism that would happen to be in the water. Especially when you are camping or outdoors, you can try to boil the water over the fire before use. This will greatly reduce your risk of ingesting the two parasites, Giardia or Cryptosporidium.


  1. Pingback: Tips For Hiking Safety, Hygiene, Pests, Pace and More Trail Tricks.

  2. James Robinson

    October 8, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Yikes! This is why it’s important to drink clean and safe water.