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Tapeworm infections occur when you ingest food or water that contains the eggs or larvae of a tapeworm.
Eggs are commonly found in contaminated water or food that has come into contact with the feces of an infected animal. Eggs pass through this animal’s digestive tract and find their way into the soil, which can, in turn, come into contact with food or water sources. When you ingest these microscopic organisms, they develop into larvae in your intestines. These larvae can then move around and migrate to the liver or other internal organs, resulting in cysts.
Larvae are commonly found in raw or undercooked meat (usually pork or beef) from an infected animal. These larvae develop into adult tapeworms which can grow to over 80 feet long.
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Malnutrition (lack of adequate nutrient absorption from food)
- Cystic lumps under the skin
- Difficulty with balance
If left untreated, tapeworm infections can lead to serious digestive blocking, damage to the brain and nervous system, organ damage, and in some rare cases, death.
- Exposure to animals and livestock feces: Tapeworm eggs are usually found in the feces of livestock and domestic animals that live around livestock. If the feces of these animals are not properly managed and disposed of, these eggs can find their way into food and water sources.
- Poor hygiene: If you do not wash your hands frequently, or fail to do so after using the toilet, your risk of developing an infection by ingesting contaminants increases dramatically. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds after using the restroom, and always wash your hands before and after handling food - especially meat.
- Consuming raw or undercooked meat: Tapeworm eggs and larvae are commonly found in raw or undercooked pork, beef, and fish. When cooking pork and beef, make sure that the internal temperature of the meat reaches 145 degrees Fahrenheit (the temperature that kills contaminants such as tapeworm larvae) before serving. Freezing meat and fish for 7-10 days will also kill tapeworm larvae and eggs. Because of this, avoid eating sushi that has not been previously frozen. Fresh sushi increases your risk of developing tapeworm.
- Traveling to areas with poor sanitation: If you are traveling to, or living in, an area of the world with poor sanitation services, your risk of tapeworm infection increases. Avoid eating raw or undercooked meat or produce, wash produce before cooking it, and boil water for at least a minute before drinking it. These strategies can help you mitigate the risk of infection.
If you notice any of the symptoms listed above or suspect that you may be experiencing a tapeworm infection, contact your health care provider. Tapeworm infections become harder to treat the longer they progress, so it is helpful to begin treatment as soon as possible.
Below is a list of common treatment options for tapeworms. Specific medication and procedures will depend on the type of infection you have. During your appointment, talk to your health care provider about your symptoms, and discuss the treatment plan that’s right for you.
If your health care provider determines that you are dealing with an adult tapeworm infection in your intestines, they will usually prescribe an oral medication meant to kill it. The most common medication used to kill adult tapeworms is praziquantel (Biltricide). After taking a course of this medication, the tapeworm releases from the walls of the intestine and is passed through the digestive tract.
After the adult tapeworm has passed, you will usually be required to submit stool samples at certain intervals to make sure that that you are free of tapeworm eggs. You can become reinfected during this time, so it is important to practice the hygiene and food handling strategies detailed above.
If eggs have developed into larvae that have migrated out of the intestine, they may cause cysts on the internal organs. These infections are more difficult to treat than adult tapeworms.
The anti-parasite medication albendazole (Albenza) is the most common first line of treatment for tapeworm cysts. As you take the medication, your doctor may monitor the shrinking tapeworm cysts at regular intervals through ultrasound scanning or X-ray imaging. You may also be prescribed anti-inflammatory medication such as prednisone or dexamethasone to reduce internal inflammation caused by the tapeworm cysts.
If medication has failed to effectively treat the infection, your health care provider may recommend surgery to remove tapeworm cysts. This procedure may be required if cysts have developed around vital organs such as the liver and lungs, or eyes. In addition to removing the cysts, the surgeon may irrigate the infection with an anti-parasite solution to destroy larvae still present in the body.