A twenty-four year-old male Kenyan refugee had been in the United States for about a month when he received a mandatory health screen for infectious diseases. He had no complaints and stated that overall, he was generally healthy. Physical exam was significant only for bilateral red conjunctiva. He stated at times his eyes get irritated and have since birth. As part of routine work-up, an ova and parasite stool exam was ordered. Organisms were detected as seen in Image 1.
The patient’s stool examination showed Giardia cysts. Two nuclei are visible in the figure above with centrally located karyosomes. Also visible are the intracytoplasmic fibrils, seen as a darker purple area.
Giardia is a flagellated protozoan that causes giardiasis, a diarrheal illness. It is the most commonly diagnosed intestinal parasitic disease in the United States. It is known as Giardia intestinalis, Giardia lamblia, or Giardia duodenalis. The most common mode of transmission is drinking water contaminated with feces from infected mammals (1).
Symptoms vary and can last 1 week to years if untreated (2). Typical symptoms of giardia are “greasy, foul-smelling, frothy stools that float.” Interestingly, less common symptoms can be itchy skin, hives, eye and joint swelling (3). Retinal arteritis and iridocyclitis has been noted as well (4). It is possible that this patient’s eye irritation is due to a chronic giardiasis infection. Common treatment is usually with an antibiotic/antiparasitic drug like metronidazole (Flagyl).
Diagnosis of Giardia can be made by demonstrating the pear shaped trophozoites and/or ovoid cysts in feces. A key identifier for this parasite is the presence of the two to four nuclei with a central karyosome and intracytoplasmic fibrils that make the parasite look like a face under the microscope. However, because Giardia is excreted intermittently, it is recommended to sample three stool specimens on separate days (5). Due to problems in concentrating the organism for identification on a trichrome stain, a fecal immunoassay is available that is more sensitive and specific (5).
- Robertson LJ, Hanevik K, Escobedo AA, Mørch K, Langeland N. Giardiasis–why do the symptoms sometimes never stop?. Trends Parasitol. 2010;26(2):75-82.
- Wolfe MS. Giardiasis.[PDF – 8 pages] Clin Microbiol Rev. 1992;5(1):93-100
-Angela Theiss is a pathology resident at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
-Christi Wojewoda, MD, is the Director of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Vermont Medical Center and an Associate Professor at the University of Vermont.