• Health

How fears of parasites drive viral claims for detoxes and cleanses

Posted on:  2024-06-24

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Removing parasites from the body is a recurring theme in health misinformation on social media. These posts misleadingly suggest that parasitic infections are a common issue and that household items can cure them. As this article will explain, there’s little to no evidence for such claims.

There are many different types of parasites requiring different treatments

Parasites are organisms that live in or on a host and draw nutrients from that host. In humans, there are three main types of disease-causing parasites: helminths, protozoa, and ectoparasites.

  • Helminths are worm-like creatures, such as roundworms, hookworms, and tapeworms.
  • Protozoa are microscopic, single-celled parasites. These can spread through food or water contaminated by feces as well as insect bites. Malaria is one well-known protozoan disease caused by Plasmodium.
  • Ectoparasites are animals that live on the skin, such as mites or ticks.

Misleading viral claims on social media typically focus on intestinal parasites, which are usually spread through food or water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common foodborne parasites in the U.S. are:

These parasites can cause a wide range of symptoms, including diarrhea, abdominal pain, malnutrition, and other gastrointestinal symptoms. However, bacterial or viral infections can cause similar symptoms, and diagnosis relies on tests carried out by healthcare professionals.

If a parasitic infection is identified, a doctor can prescribe several effective antiparasitic treatments. Contrary to claims of miracle pills that “destroy 99% of parasites” shared online, no single treatment can kill all the various types of parasites. Instead, specialized medications are designed to treat specific infections.

Parasites are less common in more developed countries

While contaminated water and insect-borne parasites are serious problems on a global level, they are comparatively rare in more developed countries. In the U.S., where many of the viral claims identified by Science Feedback originated and spread, the risk is low.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Omobosola Akinsete, an infectious disease clinician at HealthPartners Medical Group in Minnesota, said:

“Americans generally don’t need to be concerned about parasites as they are very rare in this country due to good sanitation, treated water supplies and close monitoring of food products by the government or other agencies who make sure it’s safe for human consumption.”

However, online communities claiming that 90% of Americans are suffering from harmful parasitic infections lead to undue concern about the risk. These communities often share ineffective and potentially harmful home cures or cleanses to remove purported gut parasites.

In an article for Nebraska Medicine, gastroenterologist Peter Mannon said: “It’s unlikely that the average person is walking around with active parasites in their gut […] I would question the usefulness of these parasite cleanses”.

However, it’s important to note that the risk from parasites should not be dismissed. The CDC identified five neglected parasitic infections as priorities for public health action. These are Chagas disease, cysticercosis, toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis, and trichomoniasis.

Chagas disease, a protozoan infection spread by insects, and cysticercosis, caused by a tapeworm, are rarely contracted in the U.S., but can enter the country through people who have recently been abroad. Trichomoniasis is a sexually transmitted protozoan parasite. Toxocariasis, caused by roundworm, and toxoplasmosis, a protozoan disease, are conditions spread through animal feces.

Toxoplasmosis is the most common of these neglected infections, infecting approximately 11% of people older than six years old in the U.S. Although most cases are asymptomatic, people who are immunosuppressed can have more severe symptoms, including encephalitis and seizures.

In addition, many countries have listed some parasitic infections as notifiable diseases. This means that healthcare providers are required to report diagnoses to health authorities. This reporting system helps health authorities to track the prevalence of these diseases and take necessary measures to prevent outbreaks. In the U.S., for instance, giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis, cyclosporiasis, and trichinellosis are nationally notifiable conditions.

Giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis, and cyclosporiasis are protozoan diseases typically presenting with diarrhea and are most commonly associated with foreign travel.

Trichinellosis is caused by a roundworm that can be caught from eating undercooked meat. Between 2008 and 2012, there was about 1 case per 10 million people each year in the U.S., with nearly half of cases linked to eating bear meat. In the EU, about 2 cases per 10 million people were diagnosed in 2021, driven by high rates in Bulgaria and Croatia.

Parasites that cause harmful symptoms are relatively rare in more developed countries, like the U.S. However, from a public health perspective, health authorities need to prevent outbreaks that spread from person to person or from a source of contamination. Some parasitic infections, like toxoplasmosis, are more common, although these rarely cause symptoms unless the immune system is weakened.

Methods for reducing the risk of parasitic infections include washing hands frequently, practicing safe sex, and storing, cooking and washing food properly. These basic hygiene practices can have a significant impact in preventing the spread of parasites and other infectious diseases.

Cleanses promoted online are not effective and potentially harmful

After claiming that parasites are widespread in countries like the U.S., proponents then promote the need for regular “cleansing” of parasites. There are a variety of so-called cleanses that are regularly promoted on social media. One common suggestion is that pumpkin seeds can remove parasitic worms. USA Today previously reviewed this claim and found that it was false.

Other claims that Science Feedback reviewed include using papaya seeds, turpentine, and an electrical “zapper” to cleanse the body of parasites.

These reviews found that:

  • The evidence for the effectiveness of papaya seeds in people is limited and is based on two small studies specifically about roundworms.
  • There is no reliable medical evidence showing that turpentine effectively treats parasite infections.
  • There was no clinical evidence for the electrical “zapper” killing parasites or having any other health benefits.

Promoting untested and ineffective approaches like this can cause serious harm. If someone has an infection and relies on these home remedies instead of seeing a doctor, their condition could worsen. While parasitic infections are often easily treated with the right medication, if left unchecked they can lead to severe complications, including organ damage. Similarly, if gastrointestinal symptoms are instead caused by a bacterial or viral infection, it is important to seek medical advice if the condition worsens. In the case of the turpentine claim, following such misleading advice could be extremely harmful as it is a potentially lethal poison.

A recent widely-shared social media post claimed that a “parasite detox juice” made from papaya, pineapple, ginger, lime, and thyme would kill parasites. There is no scientific evidence offered to support such a claim. In addition, the supposed need to “detox” your body is a common claim in pseudoscience. It implies that it is part of regular maintenance of the body, when in fact it is unnecessary.

Switching to a diet heavy in fruit juices and fiber is likely to increase bowel movements, possibly creating the impression of the body cleansing itself. However, this laxative effect can potentially cause electrolyte and gut microbiome imbalances.

Some posts claimed that after such “cleanses”, users can see the parasites leaving the body in the stool. An article published by Harvard Medical School explained this phenomenon:

“Promotional materials often include photographs of snake-like gelatinous substances expelled during cleansing. When these pictures are not faked, they are probably showing stool generated by large doses of the regimen’s fiber supplement.”

Parasites aren’t the cause of autoimmune conditions and cancer

Viral claims have also misleadingly suggested that parasites are the actual cause of other serious diseases.

Science Feedback previously reviewed a post on TikTok claiming that autoimmune conditions are a sign of a parasite infection. However, as we explained, each autoimmune disease has a range of risk factors, including genetics and viral infections. There is no scientific evidence indicating that parasites are the key cause of autoimmune conditions.

In another review, Science Feedback examined a viral claim that cancer and multiple sclerosis are caused by parasites. This was also shown to be incorrect. While certain types of cancer are associated with chronic infection by specific parasites, there are many different risk factors for cancer. Risk factors for multiple sclerosis include genetics and an Epstein-Barr virus infection, but there’s no causal link with parasites.

Such claims further fuel the misguided idea that hidden parasitic infections are causing widespread harm, even in relatively safe countries.


Viral claims about parasite cleanses prey on fears that parasitic infections are widespread and cause significant health problems. But in the U.S., where cleanses are heavily promoted, the risk from parasites is low and can be reduced by simple precautions.

Claims that pills, juices, seeds, or cleansers can “detox” the body of parasites aren’t grounded in evidence. At best, they are based on preliminary studies or simply have a laxative effect. At worst, such advice can lead people to consume dangerous poisons or fail to seek medical attention when they need it, which can lead to serious complications.

Many effective medical treatments are widely available if an intestinal parasitic infection is diagnosed. However, because bacterial or viral infections, as well as other gastrointestinal conditions, can also produce similar symptoms, patients need to seek testing to correctly identify the cause of the problem. Attempting a home cure based on a social media post without a diagnosis runs the risk of serious complications if the underlying condition worsens.

Science Feedback is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to science education. Our reviews are crowdsourced directly from a community of scientists with relevant expertise. We strive to explain whether and why information is or is not consistent with the science and to help readers know which news to trust.
Please get in touch if you have any comment or think there is an important claim or article that would need to be reviewed.

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