- abdominal discomfort or pain
- loss of appetite
- Tapeworm segments in stools
Children with heavy infections may experience:
- itchy bottom
- sleeping difficulties
Tapeworm infestation is often misdiagnosed as pinworm infestation.
Sometimes tapeworms form in human hosts as larval cysts and not as worms, causing:
- cystic lumps
- muscle weakness
- personality changes
Contrary to popular belief, tapeworm infestations rarely cause weight loss.
What is a Tapeworm?
Tapeworms are long flat ribbon-like creatures that inhabit the digestive tract of other living organisms. Some are microscopic while others may grow to over 30 metres (98 feet) long. They can live for up to twenty years.
Adult tapeworms consist of a scolex (head) from which they cling to their hosts intestines with suckers or hooks. Below the head grow segments (proglottids) which are filled with eggs and sperm. Tapeworms are generally hermaphroditic – they complete the reproduction cycle within themselves with sperm from younger segments fertilizing the eggs released in the older segments further downstream.
One adult tapeworm may produce several billion eggs during its lifetime. A single worm may release into its host’s feces one million fertilized eggs per day.
There are several species of Tapeworms known to cause infection in humans:
- Beef Tapeworm (Taenia saginata).
- Dwarf Tapeworm (Hymenolepis nana). The most common Tapeworm in the world, Dwarf Tapeworms can be transmitted directly amongst humans. Dwarf tapeworms unusually can complete their entire lifecycle (egg to larvae to adult) within a single human host.
- Pork Tapeworm (Taenia solium). Usually spread from pigs bred in unsanitary conditions, the Pork Tapeworm can reach 6 metres (20 feet) in length and contain over 1,000 proglottids, each containing up to 60,000 eggs. Pork Tapeworms are one of the rare varieties that may infest humans in their intermediate (egg to larvae) stage causing serious illness.
- Fish Tapeworm (Diphyllobothrium latum). These are amongst the largest of the Tapeworm varieties, with some worms growing up to 18 metres (60 feet) in length. Fish Tapeworms usually require 3 hosts to complete their lifecycle:
- A microscopic freshwater crustacean that consumes the Tapeworm egg
- A fish (e.g. Salmon) that eats the crustacean
- A human that eats the fish either raw or under-cooked.
How did I get infected?
Tapeworm infection usually occurs when you eat food or drink water contaminated with tapeworm eggs or larvae. Most people infected with tapeworms are unaware they are carrying them.
As segments of the tapeworm (proglottids) break off inside their host’s intestines and are passed along with the stool, eggs are released into the environment (e.g. animals dropping their feces on the grass). Animals such as cattle, pigs or fish will then ingest the eggs in the normal course of their feeding, thus becoming intermediary hosts.
Inside the intermediary host the tapeworm eggs will hatch into larvae, eventually invading the animal’s bloodstream through the intestinal wall. Once in the bloodstream the larvae can settle in any part of their host by forming cysts.
By eating rare or under-cooked meat humans and other animals ingest the cysts from the intermediary host. The cysts hatch into adult worms, latch onto the intestinal wall and begin producing eggs to be released into the feces.
If you ingest tapeworm eggs:
Tapeworm eggs are swallowed either in food or water that has been contaminated with the feces of an infected animal. Alternatively infection can be caused by contact through shaking of hands or with contaminated clothing or furniture.
The eggs then form into larvae that migrate out of the intestines and form cysts in various parts of the body, such as lungs, liver or even the brain. This disease is termed Cysticercosis and can cause serious problems. Untreated cases of Cysticercosis can be life-threatening.
Intermediary (eggs to larvae) infection is rare in humans with beef and fish tapeworms, but is more commonly experienced with pork tapeworms. Dog and sheep tapeworms also are known to infect humans in the intermediary stage.
Tapeworms are once again on the rise, and are regarded as the most common of all parasitic worm infestations. The salmon tapeworm (Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense), which can grow to 12 metres (39 feet) in length has been steadily increasing its global distribution and prevalence, due mainly to a growing popularity in dishes that feature raw fish (sushi, sashimi and ceviche).
In Europe the fox tapeworm (Echinococcus multilocularis) is seeing a resurgence, with risk of human infection now being seven times higher than it was 20 years ago. Fox tapeworms are picked up by pets and spread to their owners. Unlike in animal hosts, the larvae of the fox tapeworm can take up to 15 years to develop, destroying large areas of the liver before symptoms begin to appear.
The dwarf tapeworm, currently the world’s most common tapeworm infection, is often diagnosed in children, and in people living in institutional settings where sanitation and hygiene is inadequate.
Is tapeworm infestation dangerous?
Pork, dog and sheep tapeworms can cause serious complications:
- Cysticercosis is a serious condition caused by the ingesting eggs of the pork tapeworm. The eggs form into larvae and migrate through the bloodstream to various parts of the body, forming cysts and disrupting organ function.
- Neurocysticercosis is a dangerous complication of the infection of pork tapeworm infection (larval stage) as cysts form in the brain causing headaches, visual impairment, seizures, meningitis, dementia and in some cases death.
- Echinococcosis follows ingestion of the eggs of dog or sheep tapeworms, resulting in large cysts forming in body organs (often the liver). These cysts can place pressure on blood vessels nearby, inhibiting circulation or even causing rupture. In serious cases surgery or liver transplantation are required.
Hydatid disease, or Echinococcus is a serious condition in humans following the ingestion of eggs from the Echinococcus granulosus tapeworm. Microscopic eggs can adhere to the fur of dogs and other domestic animals and find their way into the mouths of humans coming into casual contact with them (through petting, etc).
Once established in human tissue, a single egg can multiply into millions of tapeworm heads in a cyst attached to various organs, including the liver, spleen, kidney, bone, brain, tongue and skin. These cysts can develop over decades without detection into a cyst the size of a grapefruit, all the while disrupting organ function. Disturbing a cyst can be life-threatening due to massive allergic reaction to released toxins.
Can I prevent tapeworm infection?
The first rule in tapeworm prevention is to thoroughly cook meat and freshwater fish. Fish that come into freshwater should not be served as sushi, and should only be eaten after they have been thoroughly cooked, properly frozen, or cured in brine. Smoking and drying of fish are not sufficient to kill tapeworm cysts.
Freezing meat for at least 12 hours and fish for at least 24 hours helps to kill tapeworm cysts and larvae. Adequate treatment of human and animal waste interrupts tapeworm lifecycle and helps lower chance of infection.
Basic hygiene also helps lower the incidence of tapeworm infection, including washing hands with soap and water before eating or handling food and after using the toilet. This also lowers the risk of re-infecting oneself during a tapeworm treatment.
When traveling in areas where infection is more prevalent, wash and cook all fruits and vegetables with safe water before eating.
Regularly treat all pets for worm infestation.
Can I safely be treated for tapeworms?
To fully eradicate tapeworm infection it is important to use an ongoing course of anti-parasitic compounds that can be safely taken over a prolonged course to eradicate the full tapeworm lifecycle, including egg, larval and adult stages. This may involve ongoing administration for between 30 and 60 days continuously depending on the type, severity and length of the infection.
Herbal treatments for parasites have effectively and safely eradicated tapeworms for thousands of years. Many traditions worldwide have documented the use of herbs to safely eliminate tapeworms in all their lifecycle stages, often noting which herbs are particularly effective for children.
For example, black walnut was employed as a vermifuge (kills worms) by North American Indians with a particular effectiveness against tapeworms noted. American natives also successfully used pumpkin seed to eliminate tapeworms, with studies in China and Russia verifying its effectiveness.
Scientific advances today are unlocking the secrets of why certain herbs are so effective in eliminating parasites such as tapeworms. Herbal medicines are now highly regulated and being manufactured to pharmaceutical grade in countries like Australia and Germany, enhancing the efficacy and safety of these preparations.
Alternative: Drugs such as praziquantel are used by western medicine used to treat the tapeworm infection, and corticosteroids may be used to relieve symptoms. In cases of cysts in the brain antiparasitic drugs (such as albendazole or praziquantel) and corticosteroids may be given. These drugs are not used to treat cysts in the eye or spinal cord because they can trigger severe inflammation that can damage nearby tissues.
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This page is for information only and is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation with a health care professional. If you have any questions about the disease described above or think that you may have a parasitic infection, consult a health care professional.