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What is a Parasite? - Definition, Types & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of a Parasite
  • 1:22 Protozoa Parasites
  • 3:08 Helminth, Arthropod, &…
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terry Dunn

Terry has a master's degree in environmental communications and has taught in a variety of settings.

You've heard people describe others as 'parasites,' but in this lesson, we'll take a look at parasites from a biological perspective. What is a parasite? What do they do? What are examples of parasites? How do they impact humans? Read on to learn the answers.

Definition of a Parasite

Parasites are plants or animals that live on or in a host getting their nutrients from that host. A host is an organism that supports a parasite. Sometimes the host is harmed by the parasite, and sometimes the relationship is neutral. But the host never benefits from the arrangement. When the parasite does have a negative impact on the host, it doesn't often kill the host directly, but the stressors that come with having parasites can kill.

Ectoparasites are parasites that live outside the body. In animals, they live on the skin and can cause itching and rashes. Endoparasites are parasites that live inside the body. For instance, they may live in the blood system, muscles, liver, brain, or digestive systems of animals.

Parasites are not one-size-fits-all. There are several main categories of parasites that can affect animals and plants. Probably the most-studied parasites are the ones that affect humans. Broadly grouped, they include protozoa, helminths, and arthropods. More familiar, less mysterious names are lice, ticks, mites, bed bugs, flukes, and tapeworms.

Protozoa Parasites

Protozoa are single-celled organisms. They are usually found in food and water that is contaminated by animal waste. Amoebic dysentery and giardia are examples of protozoa infections that invade the digestive system.

In the case of giardia, the symptoms can include diarrhea, stomach cramps, weight loss, and dehydration. Some people have fewer symptoms, but severe infections cause dramatic symptoms.

Close-up view of the giardia parasite
Giardia parasite, close up view

Other protozoa are spread by a vector, an organism that transmits diseases, like a mosquito, and infect the blood or tissue. Malaria and African sleeping sickness are two protozoa parasites that might be familiar to you. When an infected mosquito taps into your bloodstream to gather blood, they leave the parasites behind.

One particularly interesting protozoa parasite is Toxoplasma gondii. It often infects cats, rodents, and people. Scientists have estimated that 1/3 to 1/2 of all people have the parasite. Humans get it from eating infected sheep, pigs, cows, and from exposure to infected cat feces.

What makes this parasite surprising is that it affects behavior. Infected rodents lose their fear of cat urine, which raises their chances of getting eaten by cats. That passes the parasite to cats.

In most people with Toxoplasma gondii, there are few symptoms of an infection, or perhaps they will have a short stint with flu-like symptoms. But in some people, it is thought to cause schizophrenia, suicides, and reduced reaction time.

Dividing Toxoplasma gondii parasites
Close-up view of dividing Toxoplasma gondii parasites

Helminth, Arthropod, and Plant Parasites

Helminth parasites might be what most people picture parasites would look like. It includes the worm-like parasites, such as roundworms, tapeworms, and flukes. They are passed to people from contaminated water and food; they can burrow into bare feet if they are in the soil, and they can be passed by way of a vector.

The helminth that causes schistosomiasis is transmitted to humans by burrowing into skin while swimming in water that is infested with Schistosoma. Liver flukes, which are fairly common in some regions of the world, infect people when they eat raw or undercooked freshwater fish (think: sushi). They are flatworms that live in the liver's bile ducts.

Arthropods are invertebrate animals with jointed appendages, segmented bodies, and exoskeletons such as crustaceans, insects and arachnids. Not all arthropods are parasites themselves, but they can be temporary hosts.

Some of our most dreaded parasitic diseases are passed along by arthropods:

  • Mosquitoes carry malaria and yellow fever.
  • Sandflies carry leishmaniasis.
  • Fleas that live on some rodents carry plague.
  • Mites transmit scabies.
  • Let's not forget ticks, which can give us Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Plants are not at all immune to parasites. If there is a way to scrape by, living off another organism to get nutrients, then parasitic plants will find a way to do that. One of the biggest culprits is the Rafflesia arnoldii flower, or corpse flower. If you guessed the corpse flower gets its name from its intense smell, you're right. It also happens to be the largest flower on earth, measuring three feet in diameter.

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