Watching influencers in gym gear posting pictures of the parasite infested poos they just expelled out of their arsehole, might be enough to make you utter the words “that’s enough internet for today”. The term “parasite cleanse” currently has 450 million hashtags on TikTok, so if doomscrolling through too many of these videos has royally destroyed your algorithm then welcome to the club.
Holding a bottle of ParaGuard liquid drops, glossy influencer Kerry McDonald says, “I know I have parasites, I have all the symptoms,” noting she counts vomiting on a recent trip to Mexico as one of them. “I’m severely bloated all the time, I have IBS, I have all these gut issues.” She claims that five minutes after taking her first dose of 30 drops, she went to the bathroom and excreted something unmistakably worm-like. “I’m too grossed out, I’m like shaking,” McDonald continues, gesturing a foot-long worm with her fingers. “I took a photo but I’m not going to do that to you guys.”
Another post sees influencer Shani Grimmond laugh while exclaiming, “I cannot believe I got 40,000 followers after my parasite cleanse video!” She, too, references a photo she doesn’t end up sharing and tells her viewers she’s “going to make sure we see some parasites one way or another after this journey is done” – before immediately backing out claiming it’d be “too far”. Grimmond reveals (in a whisper) that her parasite paranoia is because she has mucus in her poo. “Most of us have parasites anyway, you just don’t know it,” she giggles, noting plans to up her dose of “natural parasite cleanse papaya seeds”.
Abdominal pain, bloating, gas, brain fog, teeth grinding, anxiety, constipation, insomnia and acne are all symptoms that influencers promoting parasite cleansing on TikTok are claiming – but couldn’t these be a sign of any number of gut problems? And what actually is a parasite anyway?
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, a parasite is “an organism that lives on, or in, a host organism and gets its food from, or at, the expense of its host”. But are they as common as TikTok would have us believe?
“With the exception of enterobius, also known as pinworm and threadworm, parasites are very rarely acquired in the UK,” says consultant parasitologist Laura Nabarro. Further research online shows they’re just as hard to get in the U.S, too. “Most people with gut parasites acquire them when travelling to countries with more basic hygiene, often through eating and drinking contaminated food or water.” Though some can be caught by walking barefoot in tropical countries, she adds.
As for parasite cleansers, they’re said to work by killing the parasites inside you with their “unique blend of herbs including wormwood, pumpkin seed, garlic bulb and more” according to the ParaGuard website. Sure, all of these have healthy-sounding antioxidants, but can you really imagine your doctor treating parasites with a supplement you don’t even need a prescription for?
Nabarro calls bullshit on TikTok nutritionists like Joy McCarthy advising people to take parasite cleansers, especially when they say things like they’re more effective on a full moon when the parasites are “more active”. Nabarro says doctors would never prescribe a parasite cleanse for actual parasites.
“Gut parasites can be diagnosed in an accredited laboratory by microscopy and molecular tests on stool samples,” she continues. “Once the type of parasite is identified, these are easily treated with antiparasitic medications which can be prescribed by doctors, including GPs.” Most of the cleansing agents available on the internet, Nabarro says, have not been tested in medical trials for safety or efficacy.
Scotland-based fishing guide Fred, who’s chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, was officially diagnosed with a (cough… genuine) stomach parasite in 2015, after drinking contaminated water in Mozambique.
“I started shitting blood, was in crippling pain and couldn’t move without being doubled over,” says the 32-year-old. “I was hospitalised for two weeks and it took ages to diagnose the parasites – it was the worst experience I've ever had.” Fred was given morphine and antiparasitics through a drip and had the, um, pleasure of cameras being forced up his rear end. “It’s taken me years to recover from,” Fred continues, noting he lost a stone and a half through the process. “Oh, and there wasn’t a worm coming out of my arse during the whole process.”
So where did this worm myth come from? TikToks and Instagram reels from holistic therapists often share “results” from their clients (montaged together over an upbeat song from David Guetta, of course) and almost always show literal worms in the poo. Some look like your average garden worm, some a rat tail and many are even spread out next to a ruler. These look so horrifying that it’s hard not to question their authenticity, but do parasitic worms actually look like this?
“Adult Ascaris worms look very similar to earthworms,” Nabarro explains. “But Ascaris is very rare in the UK and it’s even more unusual to pass the adult worms in the stool.” Earthworms can (very rarely) be found often in toilets, she admits, but only because they live underground and sometimes find their way into pipes and sewer systems. In all fairness, though it’d be a huge coincidence to find one in your toilet during a cleanse, it isn’t completely impossible.
Years of medical experience makes Nabarro believe that the “worms” everyone thinks they’re seeing are actually mucus strands or undigested organic matter. “They look very similar to worms but can be easily distinguished when examined under a microscope,” she says. If you consume harsh enemas – fluids used to cleanse or kickstart the emptying of your bowel – this can “damage the lining of the bowel by increasing rapid passage of undigested organic matter, which can sometimes resemble parasites”.
But the TikTok misinformation cycle continues. Terrifyingly, some creators go as far as claiming parasites are the cause of endometriosis and even herpes.
“It’s all formed by a parasite that gets into your body by way of processed foods and all this nasty meat stuff you eat,” says self-proclaimed holistic spiritual guide Elohim (@iamelohim396) on TikTok. “All the processed foods cause the parasites, all the parasites cause the herpes and you can easily get rid of herpes by starving those parasites.”
This video has a scary 193,400 likes and comments such as “thanks for sharing”, “facts” and “so true” with love heart emojis. Though his account seems to be deleted now, his videos remain widely quoted and re-shared. Similar videos even have hundreds of comments from mothers saying they’ve given parasite cleanses to young children.
This all poses the question whether it’s the companies themselves whipping us into a frenzy by paying influencers to post about their products. Some creators hold their hands up a very faded “paid partnership” icon on their videos, but most don’t – yet they use hashtags that are suspiciously similar and tag the ParaCleanse company Zahler, too.
We reached out to many parasite cleanse TikTok creators, including those mentioned in this piece, and only two were willing to respond. Kerry, mentioned earlier, firmly denies being paid, but also forgot to mention she receives commission from a different parasite cleanse on her Amazon shop. The other influencer confessed to her post being a paid partnership – though, she’s adamant she did pass worms.
With most of the parasite cleansers seemingly sold out on Amazon, it’s a worrying insight into the power social media and influencers have over your health. ParaGuard is not an FDA-approved drug – it gets around this by being categorised as a supplement. It may actually contain everything on the ingredients sheet, but its health benefits haven’t been approved by scientific testing.
Unless, like Fred, you find yourself drinking regularly from rural wells, picking up a parasite is thankfully very unlikely. The authenticity of the advice being posted online about them is even rarer. If you do actually have any of the symptoms, turn to your doctor – not influencers on TikTok. After all, it’s much easier to get sucked into an internet wormhole than it is to actually be diagnosed with a real worm… in your hole.