Tapeworms: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Tapeworms are intestinal parasites that are shaped like a tape measure. A parasite is an animal or plant that lives inside another animal or plant.

A tapeworm cannot live freely on its own. It survives within the gut of animals, including humans.

Tapeworm eggs normally enter the human host from animals via food, especially raw or undercooked meat.

Humans can also become infected if there is contact with animal feces or contaminated water. When an infection is passed from an animal to a human, it is called zoonosis.

Anyone who has a tapeworm will need treatment to get rid of it. Treatment is 95 percent effective and can be completed in a few days.

Fast facts on tapeworms

Here are some key points about tapeworms. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

Tapeworms are parasites that survive within another organism, known as the host.

They grow after the host ingests the eggs of the tapeworm.

Drinking contaminated water and eating contaminated food are the primary causes.

Oral medication is a common treatment.

Symptoms

Eggs of the tapeworm Taenia.
Eggs of the tapeworm Taenia.

Most people who have a tapeworm experience no symptoms and are unaware of hosting one.

If signs and symptoms are present, they usually include tiredness, abdominal pain, weight loss, and diarrhea.

Symptoms may vary depending on the type of tapeworm, and they may include the following:

eggs, larvae, or segments from the tapeworm in stools

abdominal pain

vomiting

nausea

general weakness

inflammation of the intestine

diarrhea

weight loss

altered appetite

sleeping difficulties this may be as a result of other symptoms.

dizziness

convulsions in severe cases.

malnutrition

vitamin B12 deficiency in very rare cases

Complications

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.

Treatments

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

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,

The patient’s stools will be checked several times 1 to 3 months after the course of medication. These medications, if procedures are followed properly, are 95 percent effective.

Anti-inflammatory medication

If the infection affects tissues outside the intestine, the patient may have to take a course of anti-inflammatory steroids to reduce swelling caused by the development of cysts.

Cyst surgery

If the patient has life-threatening cysts that have developed in vital organs, such as the lungs or liver, surgery may be required. The doctor may inject a cyst with medication, such as formalin, to destroy the larvae before removing the cyst.

The Taenia Solium tapeworm
The Taenia solium (pork tapeworm)

Most people become infected after ingesting tapeworm eggs or larvae. The common methods of infection include:

Ingestion of eggs

Eggs get into humans via:

food

water

contaminated soil

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