Lab Diagnosis of Intestinal Parasitic Infections

Laboratory diagnosis of intestinal parasitic infections can be carried out by detection and identification of the parasites or their particular stages (ova/egg, cyst, larva, or trophozoite) in the stool specimen.

Stool sample collection

Stool specimens should be collected in a wide-mouthed, clean, leak-proof container. The sample should be collected after the onset of symptoms and ideally before the initiation of the antiparasitic therapy.  First-morning sample is preferable. The amount of stool and the frequency of stool specimen submission differ according to the suspected disease. Generally, collections of three stool specimens are sufficient to make a diagnosis of most intestinal parasitic infections but for some diseases like giardiasis or amoebiasis, a total of six specimens are preferable.

Transport of stool specimen

Liquid & semi-formed stool specimens should be examined within 30 minutes of collections to visualize the motility of trophozoites (if giardiasis/amoebiasis is suspected). Further delay in an examination may disintegrate the trophozoites. Formed stools may be examined up to 24 hours after passage.

 Intestinal Parasites found in Faeces

Name of the Parasite Protozoa or Helminth Disease
Entamoeba histolytica Protozoa Amoebiasis & ameobic liver abscess
Giardia lamblia Protozoa Giardiasis
Cryptosporidium parvum Protozoa Cryptosporidiosis
Cystoisospora belli (Previously known as Isospora belli) Protozoa Cystoisosporiasis
Cyclospora cayetanensis Protozoa Cyclosporiasis
Balantidium coli Protozoa Balantidiasis
Taenia solium (pork tapeworm) Helminth Taeniasis & cysticercosis
Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm) Helminth Taeniasis
Hymenolepis nana (dwarf tapeworm) Helminth Hymenolepiasis
Schistosoma mansoni, S. haematobium, S. japonicum Helminth Schistosomiasis
Fasciola hepatica (the common liver fluke) or (the sheep liver fluke). Helminth Fascioliasis
Ascaris lumbricoides (large roundworm) Helminth Ascariasis
Ancylostoma duodenale (Old world hookworm) Helminth Hookworm infection 
Necatar americanus (New World hookworm) Helminth Necatoriasis (hookworm infestations)
Enterobius vermicularis (Pinworm) Helminth Enterobiasis
Trichuris trichiura (Whip worm) Helminth Trichuriasis (whipworm infection)

Preservation of the stool specimen

Preservatives (like formalin, and polyvinyl alcohol) are being used for the permanent fixation of stool specimens. Preservatives kill the parasites so the characteristics motility of the trophozoites cannot be seen. Preservatives help to preserve morphological forms (cyst, ova, and larvae) of parasites while being sent to reference laboratories for analysis and also lower the risk of infections to the laboratory technicians.

Laboratory detection methods for Intestinal Parasitic Infections

Macroscopic examination

The stool sample is first examined macroscopically for its consistency (formed, semi-formed, or liquid), color, odor, and presence of blood or mucus. Occasionally adult intestinal helminths e.g. Ascaris lumbricoides and Enterobius vermicularis or segment (proglottids) of tapeworms may be seen in the stool specimen.  The presence of blood and mucus in stool maybe because of amoebic dysentery or invasive infections such as balantidiasis, schistosomiasis, or severe infections with Trichuris trichiura. In giardiasis, the stool specimen may be fat-colored and frothy.

Microscopic Examination 

Eggs (ova) of various intestinal parasites

Microscopic examination of the stool is done to detect and identify the cyst and/or trophozoites of protozoan parasites. In the case of helminthic infestations eggs (ova), larvae, or segments of helminths can be seen.  Direct wet mount (saline or iodine) of stool specimen is routinely done in diagnostic laboratories for the detection and identification of agents of intestinal parasitic infections. To increase the detection rate (sensitivity), stool specimens can be concentrated by various flotation/sedimentation techniques. Smear from the concentrated sample (e.g. sediment) or permanent stained smear (e.g. by Iron-hematoxylin stain, trichrome stain, modified acid-fast stain) are used as diagnostic tools depending on the suspected infections. 

Culture Methods

Unlike Bacteriology, culture methods are rarely used as a diagnostic tool in parasitology. Culture methods are available for some of the protozoan parasites (Entamoeba histolytica, Balantidium coli), and helminths e.g. Harada-Mori culture for recovering larvae of nematodes such as hookworms, Strongyloides stercoralis.

Serology

When routine ova and parasite Exam (O & P exam) fails to identify the agents responsible for suspected parasitic infections or when an invasive parasitic infection is suspected, serological tests are used to make a diagnosis.  Serological tests are available for the diagnosis of amoebiasis, giardiasis,  cysticercosis, schistosomiasis, strongyloidiasis, and toxoplasmosis. Direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) assay, enzyme immunoassay (EIA) and rapid immunochromatographic cartridge assays are commonly used serological techniques.

Molecular Assay

Molecular assays (e.g. nucleic acid amplification tests such as PCR, and DNA probes) are reliable but expensive diagnostic tools that can be used for the diagnosis of intestinal parasitic infections.  So far, molecular assays are not the preferred method of diagnosis for stool parasites. 

References and Further Reading

  1. DPDx – Laboratory Identification of Parasites of Public Health Concern

Acharya Tankeshwar

Hello, thank you for visiting my blog. I am Tankeshwar Acharya. Blogging is my passion. As an asst. professor, I am teaching microbiology and immunology to medical and nursing students at PAHS, Nepal. I have been working as a microbiologist at Patan hospital for more than 10 years.

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