Tapeworm infection: overview and more

Tapeworm infection, a condition called taeniasis , is more of a concern in developing countries than it is in the United States. Tapeworms are a type of parasitic flatworm and some species can infect humans. Infections are more common in areas where sanitation is not available and people may be in close contact with animals.

Saltworm infections in humans are often the result of ingesting raw or undercooked beef, pork, or fish from an infected animal. A secondary cause of infection is improper hand washing after contact with tapeworms or tapeworm eggs. In the case of the pork tapeworm, the eggs can be swallowed. When they are born, they can cause a serious infection called cysticercosis.

Different types of tapeworms include the beef tapeworm (Taenia saginata) , the pork tapeworm (Taenia solium) , and the Asian tapeworm (Taenia asiatica). The latter is found in Asia and also infects pigs. Freshwater fish can become infected with a broad tapeworm called Diphyllobothrium latum.

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Symptoms of a tapeworm infection

In most cases, infection caused few or no gastrointestinal symptoms. If signs and symptoms are present, they may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Hunger
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Pass tapeworm segments in stool
  • Weightloss

In the case of infection with pig tapeworm eggs (T. solium) , other parts of the body become infected when tapeworm larvae migrate from the digestive system and form cysts ( cysticercosis ). In rare cases, this can lead to the formation of lumps or bumps under the skin, in tissues or organs of the body.

If cysts develop in the central nervous system or brain, this could indicate neurological symptoms (a condition called neurocysticercosis ). This can be quite serious. Some of the signs and symptoms of neurocysticercosis may include:

  • Headache
  • Seizures
  • Other neurological symptoms

Infection with fish chain ( D. latum ) can lead to a lack of vitamin B12, which can lead to anemia. Signs and symptoms of anemia can include:

  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Low energy
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Tinnitus

Causes

Several factors put you at risk for developing a tapeworm infection:

Undercooked meat, pork, or fish

Most often, people become infected with tapeworms by eating raw or undercooked meat, pork, or fish. If the animal has had tapeworms, the person who eats the meat can also become infected.

The life cycle of a tapeworm begins with the eggs. Tapeworm eggs can live outside the host and in the environment (for example, in water or vegetation) for days or even months. Animals can become infected after eating plants, food, or drinking water that contains tapeworm eggs.

Once inside the host animal, the young tapeworms hatch from the eggs. They are mobile and can migrate from the intestines to muscle tissue. If the meat is not frozen or cooked properly to kill the infection, it contains live tapeworms. These, in turn, can be passed on to the user.

Pork tapeworm eggs

A less common way of contracting tapeworms is from contact with pork tapeworm eggs (T solium) . The eggs are excreted in the feces of an infected person or animal. And the eggs can remain viable in the environment. This includes water, so it is important to ensure that your drinking water is free of pathogens.

Eggs can also be swallowed if an infected person does not wash their hands well after using the bathroom and then handles food that others have eaten. Pig tapeworm eggs can live on the surface. Therefore, they can also be passed on to other people using items that have eggs.

International travel

While tapeworm infection occurs in the United States, it is more common in developing countries.

Traveling to areas where tapeworm infestation is more common is a risk factor.

Preventing contamination during travel means cooking meat and fish well. Additionally, fruits and vegetables must be cooked in boiling water or properly processed water to kill any potential pathogens. It is best to avoid any suspicious food or drink.

Diagnostics

Diagnosing a digestive system infection includes examining the stool for tapeworms and / or examining the perianal area for eggs. In some cases, tapeworm segments may be visible in the stool. If this happens, it is important to take a stool sample to your doctor or laboratory for analysis and diagnosis. Some people may notice tapeworms in or around the anus. A doctor should examine them during a physical exam.

A stool test is needed to find out what type of tapeworm is present. The chair will need to be collected and returned to the laboratory. Technicians process the sample and send it for analysis. To make a diagnosis, it may be necessary to collect and analyze stool from several different bowel movements over several days.

Blood tests for vitamin B12 levels and / or anemia may be done if there is a fish tapeworm infection. A serological blood test that detects specific antibodies to cysticercosis can be used to diagnose cysticercosis, but this is rare. Imaging tests, such as CT scan or MRI, may also be done if there are complications from infection with pig tapeworm eggs that have migrated to other parts of the body.

Watch out

In the case of an intestinal tapeworm infection, treatment requires medication that immobilizes the worms. Once the worms cannot remain in the intestinal lining, they will be excreted from the body during bowel movements.

The antiparasitic drug commonly used to treat tapeworm infections is praziquantel (biltricide). Praziquantel is given once. An antiprotozoal medicine called Alinia (nitazoxanide) can be used to infect dwarf tapeworms ( Hymenolepis nana ).

In the event of complications from infection with pig tapeworm eggs, in which cysts have formed, treatment will depend on the location of the cysts. Antiparasitic medication will be dispensed. And it may require the use of additional medications or treatments to control the infection and associated complications in other parts of the body.

Get the word of drug information

Tapeworm infection is rare, even when traveling to areas where it is more common. Infections associated with most types of tapeworms can be treated with medicine. It is important to treat the infection and see a doctor to make sure the treatment is effective.

Prevention is also key but challenging in areas where there is no access to clean water and sanitation. In some parts of the developing world, infection with pork tapeworms is a major cause of persistent neurological problems. The infection is more of a concern for immigrants or for those who live in areas where livestock or cattle are raised.

Frequently asked questions

  • It is unlikely that you will see a complete tapeworm in your stool . After processing, it separates from your intestines and dissolves before leaving your body. Sometimes tapeworm eggs or segments, called proglottids, are visible and fail during bowel movements.

  • No, as long as it is on your system. However, you can feel it as it passes through the anus during a normal bowel movement .

  • No. If a tapeworm infection is not treated, the parasite will likely remain in its place. That said, depending on the type of tapeworm, you may never know it's there.

  • Tapeworms from pork, beef, and fish can grow up to 15-30 feet long. The aptly named dwarf tapeworm can reach a maximum of 2 inches.

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