TAPEWORMS

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.

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. 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.

DIAGNOSIS

To diagnose a tapeworm infection, your doctor may rely on one of the following:

  • Stool sample analysis. For an intestinal tapeworm infection, your doctor may check your stool or send samples to a laboratory for testing. A laboratory uses microscopic identification techniques to check for eggs or tapeworm segments in your feces. Because the eggs and segments are passed irregularly, the lab may need to collect two to three samples over a period of time to detect the parasite. Eggs are sometimes present at the anus, so your doctor may use a piece of transparent adhesive tape pressed to the anus to collect eggs for microscopic identification.
  • Blood test. For tissue-invasive infections, your doctor may also test your blood for antibodies your body may have produced to fight tapeworm infection. The presence of these antibodies indicates tapeworm infestation.
  • Imaging exam. Certain types of imaging, such as CT or MRI scans, X-rays, or ultrasounds of cysts, may suggest invasive tapeworm infection.

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.

 

TREATMENT

Treatments for intestinal infections

The most common treatment for tapeworm infection involves oral medications that are toxic to the adult tapeworm, including:

  • Praziquantel (Biltricide)
  • Albendazole (Albenza)
  • Nitazoxanide (Alinia)

Which medication your doctor prescribes depends on the species of tapeworm involved and the site of the infection. These drugs target the adult tapeworm, not the eggs, so it’s important to avoid reinfecting yourself. Always wash your hands after using the toilet and before eating.

Treatments for invasive infections

Treating an invasive infection depends on the location and effects of the infection.

  • Anthelmintic drugs. Albendazole (Albenza) can shrink some tapeworm cysts. Your doctor may monitor the cysts periodically using imaging studies such as ultrasound or X-ray to be sure the drug is effective.
  • Anti-inflammatory therapy. Dying tapeworm cysts can cause swelling or inflammation in tissues or organs, so your doctor may recommend prescription corticosteroid medication, such as prednisone or dexamethasone, to reduce inflammation.
  • Anti-epileptic therapy. If the disease is causing seizures, anti-epileptic medications can stop them.
  • Shunt placement. One type of invasive infection can cause too much fluid on the brain, called hydrocephalus. Your doctor may recommend placing a permanent tube (shunt) in your head to drain the fluid.
  • Surgery. Whether cysts can be removed surgically depends on their location and symptoms. Cysts that develop in the liver, lungs and eyes are typically removed, since they can eventually threaten organ function. Your doctor might recommend a drainage tube as an alternative to surgery. The tube allows aggressive rinsing (irrigation) of the area with anti-parasitic solutions.

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