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Protect Yourself from Giardia

Giardia lamblia. Photo from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ryan Halmer was on a backpacking trip when he ran out of water. “(I) thought it was riskier to be dehydrated than to catch something in the water,” says Ryan, manager of The Outdoor Source gear shop in Columbus. Mistake number one. Ryan’s symptoms set in about a week after he got home from the trip. His frequent bouts of diarrhea came with little warning. Ryan knew what gave him the diarrhea, and the doctor confirmed it: Giardia.

What exactly is Giardia? The microscopic parasite Giardia lamblia causes a nasty case of diarrhea, known as giardiasis. It can be found in soil, food and water contaminated by the feces of an animal or human already infected. You’ve probably heard of a backpacker who got Giardia when they drank (knowingly or unknowingly) tainted water.

What are the chances? “(Giardia is) extremely common among backpackers because you can’t see it and you don’t know if it’s there,” says Josh Macmillan, associate director of education at SOLO wilderness medicine school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are usually more than 20,000 reported cases per year, but many of those stem from public pools and child care centers.

Prevent Giardia by treating your water. Treating your water to disinfect it from waterborne pathogens is a way to reduce the chances of getting Giardia. When looking for a water source, avoid stagnant water and try to get as close to the water source as possible – mountain spring water is some of the best water to filter because it is so clean.

Bacteria can largely be filtered out using a filter like the Katadyn Hiker Pro. You can also use iodine or chlorine dioxide drops like Potable Aqua (add vitamin C to help with the taste). Another option is using a SteriPEN that uses UV light to render bacteria unable to reproducing itself in about one minute. The only downside is it relies on batteries.

Don’t spread it. All of this goes hand in hand with good sanitation practices. Do your business at least 200 feet away from any water source.

What to do once you have it. Giardia symptoms include gas, diarrhea, stomach or abdominal cramps and nausea. Symptoms begin one to two weeks after becoming infected. Diarrhea leads to dehydration, therefore continue to hydrate yourself to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. It helps to drink Gatorade or to drink water and eat salty food. The body rids itself of Giardia usually in a couple of days after symptoms occur. Antibiotics, however, speed up the process. Ryan went to the doctor, got a prescription for an antibiotic and his symptoms disappeared within 24 hours.