"People with colitis have a deregulated immune response against the bacteria in the gut, and if you don't have a good mucous layer separating that bacteria from the gut wall, you're going to get the inflammatory response," which causes colitis. "The worms, by inducing the body to make more mucus, might be helping the ulcerative colitis," Loke said.
In nature, whipworm infections usually spread areas with poor sanitation, when fecal matter gets back into the soil. Mild infections can be asymptomatic, but more severe cases usually result in bloody diarrhea, and in rare cases, a prolapsed rectum, said Loke. More than 20 percent of patients end up having a colectomy in which a portion of the colon must be removed.
While whipworm infection is endemic in Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is rare in North America and northern Europe, where sewage systems generally interrupt transmission. Colitis, on the other hand, is generally nonexistent in those regions with widespread exposure, leading researchers to hypothesize that childhood exposure to these parasites might offer gastrointestinal protection against inflammatory bowel disease.
So far, the research has supported this theory, though the long-term safety of actively infecting patients with the worm is still unknown.
Because current medications for colitis and other bowel disorders are harsh, expensive and can come with negative side effects, people may see whipworms as a more natural, gentle solution, Mullin said, but these parasites carry their own risks.
The worms can cause microscopic bleeding in the intestines, which leads to anemia, said Mullin, and the immune response they incite is allergic in nature and could create complications for those with asthma or seasonal allergies. It's also impossible to know at this point what the side effects of inciting this kind of immune response will be 10 or more years down the road.
So while this patient's case study serves as a valuable educational tool for researchers, a whipworm cocktail is not advised for people living with colitis, doctors warned.
"What this patient did, while interesting, isn't recommended. We cannot assume from this one case study that taking human whipworm is going to be effective for everybody," Weinstock said.
"You don't want to encourage patients to go to underdeveloped countries and splash around in the mud and hope to get better. Indiscriminate exposure makes you liable to pick up other things."