Cryptosporidiosis is infection with Cryptosporidium. The primary symptom is watery diarrhea, often with other signs of GI distress. Illness is typically self-limited in immunocompetent patients but can be persistent and severe in patients with AIDS. Diagnosis is by identification of the organism or antigen in stool. Treatment, when necessary, is with nitazoxanide.
Cryptosporidia are coccidian protozoa that replicate in small-bowel epithelial cells of a vertebrate host. Infective oocysts are shed into the lumen and passed in stool. Very few oocysts (eg, < 100) are required to cause disease, thus increasing risk of person-to-person transmission. After ingestion by another vertebrate, the oocyst releases sporozoites that transform into trophozoites in epithelial cells, replicate, and then produce oocysts that are released into the lumen of the intestine to complete the cycle. Thin-walled oocysts are involved in autoinfection.
Oocysts are resistant to harsh conditions, including chlorine at levels usually used in public water treatment systems.
Cryptosporidium parvum and C. hominis are responsible for most human cases. Infections result from fecally contaminated food or water, direct person-to-person contact, or zoonotic spread. The disease occurs worldwide. Cryptosporidiosis is responsible for 0.6 to 7.3% of diarrheal illness in developed countries and an even higher percentage in areas with poor sanitation. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, > 400,000 people were affected during a waterborne outbreak in 1993, when the city's water supply was contaminated by run-off from dairy farms during spring rains and the filtration system was not working correctly.
Children, travelers to foreign countries, immunocompromised patients, and medical personnel caring for patients with cryptosporidiosis are at increased risk. Outbreaks have occurred in day care centers. Severe, chronic diarrhea due to cryptosporidiosis is a problem in patients with AIDS.
Symptoms and Signs
The incubation period is about 1 wk, and clinical illness occurs in > 80% of infected people. Onset is abrupt, with profuse watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and, less commonly, nausea, anorexia, fever, and malaise. Symptoms usually persist 1 to 2 wk, rarely ≥ 1 mo, and then abate. Fecal excretion of oocysts may continue for several weeks after symptoms have subsided. Asymptomatic shedding of oocysts is common among older children in developing countries.
In the immunocompromised host, onset may be more gradual, but diarrhea can be more severe. Unless the underlying immune defect is corrected, infection can persist, causing profuse intractable diarrhea for life. Fluid losses of > 5 to 10 L/day have been reported in some AIDS patients. The intestine is the most common site of infection in immunocompromised hosts; however, other organs (eg, biliary tract, pancreas, respiratory tract) may be involved.
Identifying the acid-fast oocysts in stool confirms the diagnosis, but conventional methods of stool examination are unreliable. Oocyst excretion is intermittent, and multiple stool samples may be needed. Several concentration techniques increase the yield. Cryptosporidium oocysts can be identified by phase-contrast microscopy or by staining with modified Ziehl-Neelsen or Kinyoun techniques. Immunofluorescence microscopy with fluorescein-labeled monoclonal antibodies allows for greater sensitivity and specificity.
Enzyme immunoassay for fecal Cryptosporidium antigen is more sensitive than microscopic examination for oocysts. Intestinal biopsy can demonstrate Cryptosporidium within epithelial cells.
In immunocompetent people, cryptosporidiosis is self-limited. Nitazoxanide can be used; the recommended doses, given for 3 days, are
No drug has proved to be effective against Cryptosporidium in patients with advanced AIDS. Symptoms have abated after effective HAART in some AIDS patients. Supportive measures, oral and parenteral rehydration, and hyperalimentation are indicated for immunocompromised patients.
Stools of patients with cryptosporidiosis are highly infectious; strict stool precautions should be observed. Special biosafety guidelines have been developed for handling clinical specimens. Boiling water is the most reliable decontamination method; only filters with pore sizes ≤ 1 μm (specified as “absolute 1 micron” or certified by NSF Standard No. 53) remove Cryptosporidium cysts.
Last full review/revision December 2009 by Richard D. Pearson, MD
Content last modified February 2012