Tapeworms can attach to the intestines and grow to lengths of up to twenty-five feet. What are the signs and symptoms of tapeworm disease and what can you do to avoid them?
You can be infected with a tapeworm and not even know it. Tapeworm infections are more common in underdeveloped countries than in the United States, but they still occur. The most common type of tapeworm that infects people living in the United States is the beef tapeworm, which cows get from the soil.
Humans ingest the tapeworm when they eat beef that’s not cooked well enough. Another type of tapeworm infects pigs and freshwater fish, so these meats can be a source of tapeworm infections too. What are the signs and symptoms of tapeworm disease?
Signs and Symptoms of Tapeworm Disease
Humans are infected with tapeworms when they swallow tapeworm cysts. These cysts are small walled off enclosures that form around a tapeworm when it infects a cow, pig, or fish. Once a human eats meat containing tapeworm cysts, the cysts are broken down by stomach acid, and attach to the walls of the intestines where they produce eggs. Here, they can happily exist for years.
A person may have no signs and symptoms of tapeworm disease – and still be infected. When symptoms are present, they’re usually mild and nonspecific, and include loose stools, excessive flatulence, changes in appetite, vague abdominal discomfort, and weight loss. In some cases, worms can be seen on bed clothing or spotted in the feces – although this is not as common as most people think.
In rare cases, the worms can clump together in the intestines and cause a life threatening intestinal obstruction. The cysts can also lodge in other areas, such as the brain, where they can cause symptoms such as headaches and seizures. People infected with tapeworms from fish may experience anemia, since the tapeworm lowers vitamin B12 levels.
Signs and Symptoms of Tapeworm Disease: Making the Diagnosis
To make the diagnosis, doctors look for tapeworm segments or eggs in the feces. The diagnosis can be difficult to make since the eggs aren’t continuously produced and excreted. It may take a little patience and several stool samples to finally identify the offending worms.
Fortunately, the infection is easily treated with one of several drugs. The one most commonly used is praziguantel. After treatment, it’s important to check re-check the stool in four weeks to make sure no further tapeworm eggs or worm segments are showing up.
How to Prevent Tapeworm Disease
To avoid the signs and symptoms of tapeworm disease, all meat and fish should be cooked thoroughly, to at least 135 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the tapeworm cysts. Freezing for prolonged periods of time is also effective. Be cautious about eating sushi, since it contains uncooked fresh water fish. As disgusting as it may sound, the fish tapeworm can grow to lengths of 25 feet in the intestines. The best way to avoid an encounter with a slimy tapeworm is to avoid eating undercooked meat.
Professional Guide to Diseases. Ninth Edition. 2008. pages 1031-1033.
Merck Manual. Eighteenth Edition.