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Trichinosis, or as it is sometimes known, trichinellosis, is caused by eating meat infected with the larvae of a roundworm called Trichinella spiralis. These larvae can most often be found in undercooked pork or wild game, and trichinosis is common where raw or undercooked meat is eaten. Other animals that put people at risk for trichinosis include bear, boar, fox, dog, rat, wolf, horse, lion, raccoon, seal and walrus. In fact, in the United States, the highest number of trichinosis cases come from eating bear. Trichinosis is not contagious; it can only be spread through the eating of raw or undercooked meat with the Trichinella spiralis larvae in it. This disease was once very common in the United States, but is now considered to be quite rare, though still very dangerous.

Trichinosis occurs when a person eats meat which has the worm’s larvae in it. The larvae are encased in a hard cyst, but that cyst is dissolved by the person’s stomach juices, releasing the larvae into the stomach. From there they go into the intestines, where they mate. After about a week, the new larvae borrow through the intestinal wall, enter the patient’s bloodstream, and nestle their way into the muscles and other tissue.


The first symptoms of trichinosis can mimic the flu. In fact, mild cases of trichinosis may never be diagnosed, since they are assumed to be the flu and the patient recovers with no more serious effects. The symptoms usually begin to appear a day or two after eating the contaminated meat and include stomachache, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, tiredness, and fever. These can be closely followed by headaches, fever, chills, pinkeye, cough, swelling of the eyes or face, aching joints and muscles, itchy skin, and constipation. If the infection is not treated, it can lead to lack of coordination and balance, heart and lung problems, and eventually death. These symptoms may be mild or severe, and are connected to the number of infectious worms eaten in the meat.


Even in mild to moderate cases, however, the symptoms may last months. The most debilitating of the symptoms, such as fatigue, weakness, and diarrhea, may last even longer. Even then, people may not realize just what illness they have contracted. The health care provider should be told if the patient is that worn out for that long; they can order the blood tests that will detect the presence of the Trichinella spiralis worm in the body. A biopsy of the muscle may also be required to see whether any of the worms have implanted themselves in the muscles.
Image: Trichinosis


It is extremely important that you notify your doctor as soon as you begin to experience any of the symptoms, however. Several effective medications exist that can treat trichinosis, such as Vermox and Mintazol or other anti-parasite medications, but these are only effective while the larvae and worms are still in the intestinal tract. Once they leave the tract and implant themselves in the patient’s muscles, no treatment is possible, although prednisone and other corticosteroids can help relieve muscle or heart inflammation. The worms will eventually die, but the patient will be unhappy and uncomfortable until they do. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen might also relieve some of that discomfort.


There are seldom any complications with trichinosis; most cases are straightforward and easy to understand and treat. But in some cases, a heavy infestation can cause larvae to implant themselves in vital internal organs, and that can cause complications that could be dangerous. Some of these dangerous complications could include myocarditis (swelling of the heart muscle), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the bran and spinal cord), sinitus (infection of the sinuses), and pneumonia (infection of the lungs). Children seem to be more resistant to infection, though when they are infected, their symptoms seem to be more severe. However, they recover more quickly than adults do.


Since nobody wants to think of worms crawling around in their intestines making them sick, the best thing to do is to prevent trichinosis altogether. All meat products should be cooked until the juices run clear—not red or pink. For pork, that means cooked to an internal temperature of one hundred fifty degrees, or with no pink meat showing. If a cut of pork is less than six inches thick, it should be frozen for twenty days at five degrees Fahrenheit to kill any worms that might be in it already. If you hunt game for food, it must be cooked thoroughly; be aware that freezing game meat may not kill all the worms as effectively as it will for pork.

If you feed pigs or other animals, cook any meat products that they eat, and do not let them eat the carcasses of other dead animals. And if you grind your own meats or make your own sausages, clean your equipment thoroughly so that Trichinella spiralis has nowhere to hide. It is also important to know that curing, drying, smoking, or microwaving meat does not necessarily kill the worms; it must be grilled, baked or broiled thoroughly.

Trichinosis is very rare in the developed world now, but it is still common in the developing world. In many places, pigs are still fed undercooked remnants of other animals, while in the United States and other developed countries, that practice is illegal. Trichinosis is a completely preventable disease, and it has been largely prevented in many places. Education about the dangers of undercooked meats and legislation regulating farming practices have had a powerful effect on eradicating this disease from the United States and other nations. If similar educational and legislative programs could be instituted around the world, perhaps similar results could be achieved.
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