What Is Cyclospora?

Identify the signs of food-borne Cyclospora infection and learn the best methods of prevention.
July 20, 2021

A Cyclospora infection, or cyclosporiasis, is an intestinal sickness that causes people to fall ill when they consume food or water that is contaminated by faeces containing the parasite.

What causes cyclosporiasis?

Cyclospora infection is caused by a single-celled parasite called Cyclospora cayetanensis. People get sick after drinking water or eating food that’s been contaminated by a person with cyclosporiasis.

Although the parasite is passed via stool, it can take days or even weeks to become infectious after it’s passed through a bowel movement. That means it’s extremely rare for Cyclospora to be passed directly from one person to another.

Anyone is potentially at risk

In the past, travellers to tropical, developing countries were most likely to get this parasite. While international travel may still present a risk, since the 1990s, cyclosporiasis has mainly been tied to fresh imported produce such as raspberries, lettuce, snow peas or basil. Infections are now present in countries all over the globe.

Young children, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system is more likely to suffer unfavourable effects from Cyclospora.

Symptoms impact stomach, bowels

After infection, it usually takes roughly a week for symptoms to occur, and these symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to more than a month. Cyclospora primarily affects the stomach and intestines. The most common symptoms are:

  • frequent, watery diarrhoea
  • alternating bouts of diarrhoea and constipation
  • bloating, flatulence, burping
  • abdominal cramps or pain
  • nausea, vomiting
  • loss of appetite and weight loss
  • body aches and fatigue
  • fever

When to visit a doctor

Multiple illnesses have similar symptoms, but some are serious enough that they require a doctor’s expertise. If you have diarrhoea that lasts several days or recurs, you’ve consumed a food recalled due to a Cyclospora outbreak, or visited a country where parasites like Cyclospora are more common, you should see a doctor right away.

Dehydration from diarrhoea is also cause for concern. Signs of dehydration are dry mouth and/or tongue, reduced urination or sunken eyes.

Physicians typically prescribe antibiotics, rest and plenty of water to fight the infection.

Prevention: tough but possible

People generally think of high-risk foods like raw meat as the main source of food-borne illness, but in recent years fresh produce has posed a danger to human health as well.

Though Cyclospora can be difficult to prevent, there are steps you can take to lower the risk of infection. Pay attention to food recalls, and only buy produce from reputable suppliers. Avoid food or water that may be contaminated with faeces, and make sure to always wash, store and handle produce safely. Cook foods thoroughly, as cooking kills Cyclospora.

Cleanliness is crucial. When working with produce, you should:

  • use soap and hot water to thoroughly wash your hands and any surfaces and utensils you may use
  • wash hands, utensils and cutting boards between touching vegetables or fruits and handling raw meat, poultry or seafood
  • wash produce well with water before preparing
  • discard any produce that looks or smells bad. When in doubt, throw it out
  • refrigerate cut fruit or vegetables within 2 hours of cutting or peeling
  • always store produce away from raw meat, poultry or seafood

When working with produce or any other kind of food, the best way to prevent illness is through training and certification. Food Handlers educated in how to safely work with food will stop sickness from spreading. The Australian Institute of Food Safety (AIFS) offers tailored Food Handler certification through our Food Handler course.