Worms are organisms that live in and feed off a living host. There are a variety of parasitic worms that can take up residence in humans. Among them are flatworms, thorny-headed worms, and roundworms. The risk of parasitic infection is higher in rural or developing regions. The risk is great in places where food and drinking water may be contaminated and sanitation is poor. When it comes to parasitic infection, flatworms and roundworms are likely culprits. These two types of parasitic worms can be found in a variety of habitats. They aren’t always visible to the naked eye.
You can get a tapeworm, which is a type of flatworm, by drinking water contaminated with tapeworm eggs or larvae. Raw or undercooked meat is another way tapeworms can find their way into people. Tapeworms embed their heads into the intestinal wall and remain there. From there, certain types of tapeworms can produce eggs that mature into larvae that migrate to other parts of the body. A tapeworm looks like a long, white ribbon. They can grow up to 80 feet long and live in a human for up to 30 years. Symptoms include lumps or bumps, allergic reaction, fever, and neurological problems such as seizures.
Flukes are a type of flatworm. People are less likely than animals to contract flukes. Raw watercress and other freshwater plants are the main sources of flukes in humans. You can also get them when you drink contaminated water. They make their home in your intestines, blood, or tissues. There are many varieties of flukes. None reach more than a few inches in length. Symptoms include fever and fatigue.
Hookworms are transmitted through feces and contaminated soil. The most common way to make contact with this type of roundworm is to walk barefoot on soil infested with hookworm larvae. They can pierce through the skin. Hookworms live in the small intestine, where they attach themselves to the intestinal wall with a “hook.” They’re usually less than half an inch long. Symptoms include itchy rash, anemia, and fatigue.
Pinworms are tiny, fairly harmless worms. They’re more common in children. These roundworms, when fully matured, live in the colon and rectum. The female lays eggs around the anus, usually during the night. The eggs can survive on bedding, clothing, and other materials. People contract them when they touch the eggs and end up putting them in their mouths. The eggs are so small you can even breathe them in if they become airborne. They’re easily passed among children and caregivers or in institutions.
Trichinosis roundworms are passed among animals. The most common way humans get trichinosis is by eating undercooked meat that contains the larvae. The larvae mature in your intestines. As they reproduce, those larvae can travel outside the intestines into muscle and other tissue. Symptoms include fever, swelling of the face, muscle pain and tenderness, headache, light sensitivity, and conjunctivitis.
Overall, the symptoms of some parasitic worm infection may include nausea, lack of appetite, diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, and general weakness. If you’re experiencing any unusual symptoms, especially if you’re returning from a trip to another country, consult your doctor. Diagnostic tests that will be necessary to identify the culprit include:
- A fecal test involves checking a stool sample for parasites, larvae, or eggs.
- A colonoscopy can be useful when stool samples turn up no evidence of parasites as a cause of diarrhea. They may also help eliminate other causes for your symptoms.
- Imaging tests like MRI, CT scan, or X-rays can be used to detect organ injury caused by parasites.
- A blood test can be used to detect some types of parasites in the blood.
- A tape test involves placing clear tape around the anus. The tape can be examined under a microscope for the presence of pinworms or their eggs. But even with the naked eye, sometimes you may be able to see evidence of pinworms around a child’s anus within the first few hours of falling asleep.
The main treatment is prescription antiparasitic medication. This family of drugs can kill parasites and help pass them through your system. The antiparasitic medication you’ll receive, doses schedule, and duration of treatment will depend on the type of parasite infection you have. Don’t stop taking the medication in the middle of the course, even if you feel better. In very severe cases in which parasites have invaded other parts of the body, additional treatments like surgery and other medications to address additional problems caused by the parasites may be necessary.
Ask your doctor if you should follow a special diet or take nutritional supplements during this time. Follow up with your doctor as advised. Most people respond well to treatment and feel better within a few weeks. A full recovery can be expected in most cases. It may take longer to recover if it is a severe case, compromised immune system, and a coexisting health condition.
The following tips can often help prevent parasitic worm infection:
- Never eat raw or undercooked meat, fish, or poultry.
- Avoid cross-contamination during food prep by keeping meat separate from other foods.
- Disinfect all cutting boards, utensils, and countertops that touched raw meat.
- Don’t eat watercress or other freshwater plants raw.
- Don’t walk barefoot in places where soil may be contaminated by feces.
- Clean up animal waste.
- Shop for kitchen cleaning supplies.
Also be sure to give your hands a good scrubbing with soap and water at these times:
- before eating
- before food prep
- after touching raw meat
- after using the toilet
- after changing a diaper or caring for someone who’s sick
- after touching an animal or animal waste
It’s more difficult to prevent parasitic worm infection when you’re traveling to foreign countries, especially in regions where sanitation is a problem. That’s when you should be extra vigilant. When traveling, be sure to:
- Be aware of how your food is prepared.
- Drink only bottled water.
- Carry hand sanitizer. Soap and water is best, but if you don’t have access to soap and running water, it can help prevent parasitic worm infection.
TAPEWORM IN HUMANS
Tapeworms are flat, segmented worms that live in the intestines of some animals. Animals can become infected with these parasites when grazing in pastures or drinking contaminated water. Eating undercooked meat from infected animals is the main cause of tapeworm infection in people. Although tapeworms in humans usually cause few symptoms and are easily treated, they can sometimes cause serious, life-threatening problems. That’s why it’s important to recognize the symptoms and know how to protect yourself and your family.
Tapeworms have a three-stage lifecycle: egg, an immature stage called a larva, and an adult stage at which the worm can produce more eggs. Because larvae can get into the muscles of their hosts, infection can occur when you eat raw or undercooked meat from an infected animal. It is also possible to contract pork tapeworms from foods prepared by an infected person. Because tapeworm eggs are passed with bowel movements, a person who doesn’t wash hands well after wiping and then prepares food can contaminate the food.
Six types of tapeworms are known to infect people. They are usually identified by the animals they come from — for example, Taenia saginata from beef, Taenia solium from pork, and Diphyllobothrium latum from fish.
Sometimes, tapeworms cause symptoms such as Nausea, Weakness, Diarrhea, Abdominal pain, Hunger or loss of appetite, Fatigue, Weight loss, Vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
However, often tapeworms don’t cause symptoms. The only sign of tapeworm infection may be segments of the worms, possibly moving, in a bowel movement. In rare cases, tapeworms can lead to serious complications, including blocking the intestine, or smaller ducts in the intestine (like the bile duct or pancreatic duct). If pork tapeworm larvae move out of the intestine, they can migrate to other parts of the body and cause damage to the liver, eyes, heart, and brain. These infections can be life-threatening.
There are several effective methods of preventing tapeworm infection, including:
- Good hygiene: Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after using the bathroom and before eating.
- Food precautions: In an area where tapeworms are common, make sure to wash and cook all fruits and vegetables with clean water.
- Livestock: Properly dispose of animal and human feces. Minimize animal exposure to tapeworm eggs.
- Meat: Cook meat to a temperature of at least 150 °Fahrenheit (66 °Celcius) thoroughly. This will kill larvae or eggs.
- Meat and fish: Freeze fish and meat for at least 7 days. This will kill tapeworm eggs and larvae.
- Raw foods: Do not consume raw or undercooked pork, beef, and fish.
- Dogs: If you have a dog, make sure they are treated for tapeworms. Take special care with your personal hygiene. Make sure your dog only eats cooked meat and fish.
- Kitchen hygiene: Make sure all work surfaces are regularly cleaned and disinfected. Do not allow raw foods to touch other foods. Wash your hands after touching raw meat or fish. Experts say that smoking or drying meat or fish is not a reliable way to kill larvae or eggs.
Treatments for Tapeworms
Treating tapeworm larvae infection is more complicated than treating an adult tapeworm infection. While the adult tapeworm stays in the gut, the larvae may settle in other parts of the body. When a larvae infection finally produces symptoms, the infection may have been present for years. In some rare cases, larvae infection can be life-threatening. Oral medications may be prescribed. The digestive system does not absorb these drugs well. They either dissolve or attack and kill the adult tapeworm. A doctor may advise the patient to take a laxative to help the tapeworm come out in the stools. If the patient has a pork tapeworm infection, they may be given an anti-emetic medication, which prevents vomiting. Vomiting during a tapeworm infection can lead to reinfection by swallowing the tapeworm larvae.
What to do if you think you have tapeworms:
- If you suspect you have tapeworms, see your doctor. Diagnosing a tapeworm infection may require a stool sample to identify the type of worm.
- If worms are not detected in the stool, your doctor may order a blood test to check for antibodies produced to fight tapeworm infection. For serious cases, your doctor may use imaging tests such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to check for damage outside the digestive tract.
- The type and length of treatment may depend on the type of tapeworm you have. Tapeworms are usually treated with medicine taken by mouth. The most commonly used medicine for tapeworms is praziquantel (Biltricide).
These medications paralyze the tapeworms, which let go of the intestine, dissolve, and pass from your body with bowel movements. If worms are large, you may have cramping when they pass.
Your doctor will recheck stool samples at one and three months after you finish treatment. When tapeworms are confined to the intestines, appropriate treatment gets rid of them in more than 95% of people.
The risk of complications depends on several factors, including the type of tapeworm and whether or not the patient receives treatment:
- Cysticercosis: If a human ingests pork tapeworm eggs there is a risk of larvae infection. The larvae can exit the intestine and infect tissues and organs elsewhere in the body, resulting in lesions or cysts.
- Neurocysticercosis: This is a dangerous complication of pork tapeworm infection. The brain and nervous system are affected. The patient may have headaches, vision problems, seizures, meningitis, and confusion. In very severe cases, the infection can be fatal.
- Echinococcosis, or hydatid disease: The Echinococcus tapeworm can cause an infection called echinococcosis. The larvae leave the gut and infect organs, most commonly the liver. The infection can result in large cysts, which place pressure on nearby blood vessels and affect circulation. In severe cases, surgery or liver transplantation is required.
Types of Tapeworm
In human beings, tapeworm infection is most commonly caused by the following species:
- pork tapeworm (Taenia solium)
- beef tapeworm (Taenia saginata)
- dwarf tapeworm (Hymenolepis nana)
- fish tapeworm from raw freshwater fish (Diphyllobothrium latum)
- dog tapeworm, more common in rural areas
The type of tapeworm will influence the area of the body that is infected and how severe the symptoms are.
Removing adult tapeworms from the body is easier than managing a larvae infection. Taking medicine that kills the tapeworm is normally enough to ensure that the body will remove the tapeworm in stools. Medicine is now advanced enough that surgery is often not necessary. However, the drugs are highly toxic. If a tapeworm reaches the brain, surgery and medicine may be used together to remove the parasite.