Tapeworm infection, an infection that occurs when the tapeworm parasite is ingested, is on the decline in the United States. This is largely due to current laws that regulate feeding practices for livestock. Because the majority of tapeworm infections come from eating contaminated beef and pork, these laws have been very effective in reducing the number of incidents reported.
Tapeworms are parasites that live in the intestines of their infected hosts: either animals or humans. They are flat worms that resemble a tape measure and can grow to up to 50 feet in length.
Individuals who are infected with tapeworms may not display any symptoms. The type of symptoms that may develop will depend largely on the type of tapeworm causing the infection and the area of the body in which it is located. If the tapeworm is invasive and has spread to other areas of the body, the symptoms that develop will depend on what part of the body the larvae have migrated to.
Tapeworm infection begins in the intestines. Sometimes, it can migrate to other parts of the body. Symptoms associated with an intestinal tapeworm infection include:
- Decreased appetite
- Pain in the abdomen
- Weight loss
When a tapeworm migrates to other areas of the body, like the brain (brain tapeworms), it is known as an invasive tapeworm infection. When this happens, the tapeworm invades the tissues and organs, which can result in the development of cysts and tissue and organ damage. Symptoms include:
- Cystic lumps
- Allergic reaction to larvae
- Bacterial infections
- Seizures and other neurological symptoms
Tapeworm infection occurs when an individual ingests contaminated food or water that contains either the eggs or larvae of the tapeworm.
If the larvae are ingested, they settle in the intestines where they grow into adult tapeworms. When livestock is infected with tapeworm, the tapeworm infection is present in the animal’s muscle tissues. When an individual consumes meat from an infected animal that is raw or undercooked, the larvae is ingested.
The larvae then settle in the individual’s intestines, where they grow into adult tapeworms and can live for up to 20 years. Tapeworms will either exit the body through the stool, or attach themselves to the lining of the intestines, causing inflammation and irritation. Cooking meat to safe temperatures kills the parasite and prevents transmission.
If the eggs are ingested, they can travel outside of the intestines and migrate to tissues and organs in the body. Once there, they can form larval cysts within the tissues or organs. Eggs are ingested when an individual consumes contaminated food or water that contains feces from an infected animal or human.
You do not have to come into contact with an infected animal to pick up the infection. If an infected animal transmits the eggs into the soil via its feces, the soil can spread the infection if it comes into contact with a food or water source. The tapeworm has multiple segments, and each segment can contain thousands of eggs.
Consuming undercooked or raw fish can lead to fish tapeworm infection. These types of tapeworm infections are common in countries that regularly consume raw fish. Raw or undercooked freshwater fish such as Salmon are the most common sources of fish tapeworm.
Fleas and certain beetles are capable of passing tapeworm infection onto humans. When fleas eat animal feces that are contaminated with tapeworm eggs, they can transmit the eggs to humans. This type of transmission is most common in areas that have poor hygiene.
Humans, especially children, can pick up tapeworm infection by coming into contact with contaminated dog feces. If they accidentally touch the infected dog stool and then place their hand in or near their mouth, they will ingest the tapeworm eggs.
Tapeworms can be caused be reinfection. When an individual is being treated for tapeworm infection, the eggs that are present in the stools can be ingested if proper hand-washing techniques are not followed. This results in reinfection.
Tapeworm infection is not common. There are certain risk factors that can put an individual at risk for contracting tapeworm infection. These risk factors include:
- Infrequent hand washing
- Infrequent bathing
- Exposure to livestock
- Exposure to human or animal feces
- Visiting developing countries
- Visiting areas that have poor sanitation practices
- Consuming raw or undercooked meat, pork or fish
- Living in parts of the world that have a high tapeworm infection rate
There are several tests a doctor can use to make a diagnosis of tapeworm infection, including:
- Stool sample analysis
- Blood tests
- CT imaging scan
- MRI imaging scan
Some individuals who are infected with tapeworms do not require any treatment. This is because the tapeworm can exit the body via the stool. Individuals who are diagnosed with a tapeworm infection will require medication to kill the tapeworm. The type of treatment will depend on the type of infection.
Intestinal tapeworm infection is treated with oral medications that kill the adult tapeworm. The most commonly used medications are Praziquantel, Albendazole and Nitazoxanide. These medications are only toxic to the adult tapeworms and will not kill the eggs. For this reason, it is important to use good hygiene and always wash your hands after using the toilet and before eating to prevent reinfection.
Treatment for invasive tapeworm infections in other areas of the body will depend on the location of the infection and the effects on the body. There are some medications that can be used to shrink the cysts that are caused by tapeworm larvae. These medications are known as Anthelmintic drugs. Prescription corticosteroids may be prescribed to alleviate swelling caused by dying tapeworm cysts. Some larval cysts will require surgical removal, depending on their location. Cysts that form in the liver, lungs or eyes generally require surgery to prevent serious complications from developing.
Home Care Relief
While tapeworm infections need to be treated with appropriate medications, there are some simple home care techniques that can be used to offer relief during treatment. If medications are causing stomach upset, be sure to stick to a bland diet and avoid foods that are fried, spicy or high in fat. Heat applied to the abdomen can help soothe stomach cramps that can accompany intestinal tapeworm infection. Sitting in a warm bath can help alleviate anal itching and swelling. An example of a bland diet would be the BRAT diet.
There are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself from tapeworm infection, including:
- Frequent hand washing with soap and water, especially before eating and after using the bathroom
- Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables when traveling to areas with a high incidence of tapeworm infection
- Properly dispose of animal feces when handling livestock
- Cook meat thoroughly
- Freeze meat for 12 hours or more prior to eating it to kill tapeworm eggs and larvae
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked meat or fish
- Treat infected dogs immediately
Intestinal tapeworm infections are generally mild and clear up quickly with medication. Invasive tapeworm infection can be more serious and can lead to serious complications, including seizures, swelling of the brain and organ failure. It is important to seek treatment immediately if you think you may be infected with tapeworms.