There is no way around it. Some things in life are gross, and there are very few things more able to turn stomachs than a tapeworm infection. You may not want to think about it, but it is entirely possible you may have one of these parasitic worms attached to your intestinal wall sometime in your life. It is even possible you have one hitching a ride in your gut right now without even knowing it is there.
Lest you think that living in a developed country like the United States means you are off the hook, tapeworm infections can happen anywhere. Since tapeworm infections are often passed through undercooked meat, it is possible to become infected without leaving home. It is certainly true, however, that your chances of getting an unwelcome friend from your food are higher if you live in some developing countries. Despite this, tapeworm larvae can be found anywhere, and poor hygiene can promote the spread of these unsavory pests no matter what country you call home.
There are several exotic varieties, but the common tapeworm is the culprit responsible for the majority of infections in humans. This flatworm lives in the intestines of infected animals, and can be spread through eating undercooked meat or coming into contact with the feces left by the host animals a tapeworm calls home. If you are already a little squeamish imagining how animal feces could result in you getting an infection, it may not help to know that coming into contact with human feces from an infected person is also a way to get a tapeworm of your own.
If you were ever curious why you should be concerned about fully cooking your dinner, the specter of an intestinal invader should be enough to help you be vigilant about how thoroughly you cook meat. Not all kinds of meat carry the same risk, but pork and some kinds of raw fish can carry a higher chance of having tapeworm eggs or larvae survive the cooking process.
What are the Different Types of Tapeworm?
There are many different kinds of tapeworms, and they tend to come calling in the different types of food we eat. As individual species of tapeworm will infect a different type of host, the likelihood of one latching on inside you is related to which animals you eat or spend time around. A few of the most common types of tapeworm are listed below:
- beef tapeworm (Taenia saginata)
- dog tapeworm (Dipylidium caninum)
- dwarf tapeworm (Hymenolepis nana)
- fish tapeworm (Diphyllobothrium latum)
- pork tapeworm (Taenia solium)
Regardless of the type of tapeworm you have encountered, if it has moved in and gotten comfortable, the effect is generally the same. Living in your intestine, a tapeworm goes about its business happily stealing nutrients from the food you thought you were going to have for yourself.
The only other concern of a tapeworm is to reproduce, which brings to mind a host of unpleasant images. Behind their heads, these unwelcome flatworms are largely made of identical segments called proglottids. These segments are capable of reproducing on their own if they become separated from the rest of the tapeworm. When these segments are passed out into the feces of a host, a rather disgusting possibility for a transfer to a new host arises.
How Long do Tapeworms Live?
Depending on the species, tapeworms can live for up to 20-30 years. Many times, people can be infected for long periods of time without even knowing they have a tapeworm infection.
While viral or bacterial infections can disappear in a matter of days or weeks, a tapeworm could be with you for years. They have been known to live longer than 20 years from their beginning as tapeworm eggs through their larval stage in feces or the muscle tissue of a host and finally as an adult tapeworm inside the intestine of a host.
Getting rid of a tapeworm infection can be a long process, sometimes taking months, but the infection itself could have been going on for years undetected. This is part of what allows tapeworms to live for such a long time.
How are Tapeworm Infections Treated?
Realizing you have possibly been hosting an uninvited guest for years can be disconcerting to say the least. Thankfully, however long you have been infected, getting rid of adult worms is a fairly direct process. A course of the well-established antiparasitic drug praziquantel is enough to eradicate roughly 95% of adult tapeworm infections. This treatment is not immediately effective, though, and you may be left watching for signs of the offending worm in your feces for many weeks.
There are other situations that are a little less straightforward from a treatment perspective. It is possible that tapeworm larvae can escape from your digestive tract and go explore other parts of the body. If this happens, these larvae can become lodged in other tissues and form cysts around themselves. These tapeworm cysts can form in tissues throughout the body, a process known as cysticercosis. These cysts can do significant damage to organs like your liver, eyes, and even your nervous system and brain.
The method used to treat tapeworm cysts largely depends on where the cysts formed in the body, and how severe the effects are. Surgically removing cysts from the liver can be very important for your health, and is often a justification for surgery. Treating neurocysticercosis is a more delicate manner. In some circumstances, a shunt may need to be placed to drain fluid from the cyst if it is determined that removing it will be too difficult or dangerous.
How do I Know if I Have a Tapeworm?
You might think a living thing hiding out inside your intestines would be something you would notice. Tapeworms, however, are discrete guests. It may be years before you ever notice you have an infection, if you even know at all. It is even possible you will not discover a tapeworm infestation until you find the offending creature, or a segment of it, in a stool sample after it has dislodged from your gut.
There are a few signs, however, that point to the likelihood a tapeworm has chosen you for a host. Many of these effects are common symptoms shared by several digestive diseases and conditions, so identifying a parasite like a tapeworm may not be easy to do quickly. Inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and even serious illnesses like colon cancer can share some of the most common symptoms of a parasite infection in your gut. A short list of these symptoms are listed below:
- altered appetite
- loss of appetite
- abdominal pain
- general weakness
- inflammation of the intestine
- weight loss
- sleeping difficulties due to other symptoms
There are other symptoms that are far more severe. These are much more rare, and some are only associated with the presence of tapeworm larvae in other places in your body than just your intestine. These serious tapeworm infection symptoms include:
- convulsions in severe cases
- vitamin B12 deficiency in very rare cases
- eggs, larvae, or segments from the tapeworm in stools
- seizures and other neurological effects (from neurocysticercosis)
Verifying a tapeworm infection can be done in a few different ways. Typically one of the first places your doctor will look is in a stool sample to see if tapeworm eggs, larvae, or even proglottids are present. Failing a rapid and conclusive diagnosis from your poop, blood tests can sometimes be used to identify the presence of an unwanted visitor in your bowels.
Should I Ask my Doctor About Tapeworms?
With any digestive issue, it can be tricky business to know when to seek medical advice. After reading this article, you may want to sprint to the doctor at the first sign of nausea. Thankfully, a tapeworm infestation is rarely something that needs to be treated immediately, particularly when the only symptoms you experience are digestive. If you have been experiencing some of the symptoms listed above for a matter of a few days, it is likely there is another cause for them. If you find your symptoms persist, however, it is worth seeing your doctor to find out what is going on.
One important thing to remember is that tapeworm infections are not just something that happens on the other side of the globe. Through poor hygiene or undercooked meat, it is possible for pork tapeworm eggs to survive long enough to infect you no matter where in the world you live. If you have been experiencing general weakness, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss and other symptoms, especially if you have been traveling to developing countries or spending time around farm animals such as pigs, it may be time to investigate what is going on with your health. At Cary Gastroenterology Associates, we deal with all kinds of digestive problems. This includes everything from common colon cancer screenings to the common tapeworm, even if the latter isn't actually so common here in the United States. No matter what your concern regarding your digestive health, we are here to help. If you have noticed long-lasting changes to your digestion, it may be time to make an appointment to see what little bug, or large worm, might be causing your troubles.