Tapeworms are flat, segmented parasitic worms that live in the intestines of some animals. Animals can become infected with these parasites when grazing in pastures or drinking polluted water.
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Humans can become infected with tapeworms after consuming undercooked meat from infected animals. Tapeworms in humans usually cause few symptoms and are easily treated. However in some severe cases, they can cause life-threatening problems.
Causes of Tapeworm
Six types of tapeworms are known to infect people. They are usually identified by the animals they come from Taenia saginatafrom beef, Taenia solium from pork, and Diphyllobothrium latum from fish.
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. Since larvae can get into the muscles of their hosts, infection can occur when you eat raw or undercooked meat from an infected animal.
Since the eggs of tapeworm are passed from an infected person who doesn’t wash hands well after bowel movement, it is possible to get pork tapeworms by eating foods prepared by such person.
Sometimes tapeworms cause symptoms such as:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Hunger or loss of appetite
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
Tapeworms don’t often 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 travel to other parts of the body and cause damage to the eyes, heart liver, and brain.
Treatment for Tapeworms
A sample of your stool may be required to diagnose a tapeworm infection. If your stool sample fail to detect tapeworms, then 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 oral medications. The most commonly used medicine for tapeworms is praziquantel (Biltricide).
These medications paralyze the tapeworms, causing them to 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.
Preventing Tapeworms in Humans
- Wash your hands before and after toilet
- Avoid eating raw fish and meat.
- Thoroughly cook meat to temperatures of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit for whole cuts of meat and to at least 160 degrees F for ground meat and poultry. Then, allow the meat to rest for three minutes before carving or consuming; the heat continues killing pathogens during that time.
- Freezing meat to -4 degrees F for at least 24 hours also kills tapeworm eggs.
- When traveling in undeveloped countries, cook fruits and vegetables with boiled or chemically-treated water before eating.
- Wash hands with soap and hot water before preparing or eating foods.