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Surviving Giardia: A Thru-Hiker's Guide
Giardia is easily the most dreaded illness among hikers. We’ve all heard horror stories of how debilitating giardia can be. But just what is it? How can it be prevented? And if you do come down with giardia while you’re hiking, what should you do? The following guide is a combination of research and personal experience. It should get you off to a good start.
What is giardia?
Giardiasis, or giardia infection, is an intestinal illness caused by microscopic parasite called giardia intestinalis. When ingested, this parasite sets up camp inside the intestines of the infected person. Characterized most famously by its diarrheal nature, giardia is passed not by blood, but by feces.
How do you get it?
Although beavers often shoulder the blame for giardia, which is commonly called “beaver fever,” these little guys are not the only carriers of giardia in the wild. Other carriers responsible for spreading the illness include dogs, cats, muskrats, bears and – yes – humans. Hikers contract giardia by consuming food or water that has been contaminated by the feces of another human or animal with giardia.
What are the symptoms?
Common symptoms of giardia include diarrhea, gas, greasy stools, stomach cramps and nausea. Loss of appetite and fatigue are also common. Symptoms that occur rarely are fever and vomiting. Because diarrhea is usually the predominant symptom dehydration becomes a big risk for hikers with giardia.
How can giardia be avoided while hiking?
The easiest way to avoid giardia is to treat your water – especially surface water. I have been guilty of drinking untreated spring water when it flows straight out of the ground and I collect it at the source. As far as I know this has never made me sick; however most people would tell you not to take any chances.
Another way to avoid giardia is never to share food with other hikers. Let’s face it – the bearded dude next to you didn’t wash his hands before he ate the first half of that slice of pizza.
Finally, use hand sanitizer.
What if you get giardia while hiking?
If you can, get to a doctor. The sooner you get treated the sooner you will start to feel better. However, it is possible you will find yourself in a situation where the nearest town is still a couple days away and you have no choice but to walk yourself there. It happened to me. This is what I did.
· Try to stay hydrated. This is very important. Diarrhea can be extremely dehydrating, and if you’re like me you’ll be among the lucky few who also experiences vomiting. Drink as much clean (treated) water as your stomach will tolerate. Drink slowly. I made the mistake of guzzling and guess what? All that perfectly good water went to waste.
· Eat as much as you can. Easier said than done. You will experience perfect loss of appetite and all that food you used to love will revolt you. Just remember you need food in order to have energy, you need energy in order to hike, and you need to hike in order to be saved. So force it down. If you carry energy drinks, this would be a good time to use them.
· Take it easy. Thru-hikers hate to be slowed down. When you’re used to hiking 25 miles a day you are humiliated at the prospect of having to stop after 13. But if you have to stop, stop. Take frequent breaks and camp early to get some sleep. Even though sleep won’t make you better, at least you’ll get plenty of rest and take it from me – it feels darn good to be still.
· Take a short cut. Now is not the time to be a hero. If you have to bail out, do it. When I had giardia it was my good fortune to be hiking with the master of all things navigational. He planned an alternate route for us to take. We abandoned the Continental Divide, cut across Navajo Nation and shaved a good 20 miles off the hike. If you’re the kind of hiker who feels bad about missing something, you can always go back to it.
When you have finally emerged from the wilderness, see a doctor. S/he will probably prescribe an antibiotic medication called metronidazole (Flagyl) – a heavy hitter that will wipe out the giardia and also make you feel terrible. Take a couple days in town to recover. Get lots of sleep, drink lots of water and eat lots of food. Don’t return to the trail until you’ve regained strength and hydration. When you do get back out there, take it easy. It’s going to take a while to get back to good. Give it time.
Take the precautions noted above and with any luck you will never experience giardia. If you do and you happen to be on the trail, take care of yourself. Be tough. You’ll get through it. Remember, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It also makes a great story to tell your friends once time has passed and you’re able to laugh about it.