We tend to associate tapeworm infections with horror stories and horror movies where these giant worms eat their victims from the inside out. However, tapeworm infections are typically not that dramatic. While most cases of tapeworm infections are easily diagnosed and treated, an untreated tapeworm infection can be life threatening, and a definite threat to health.
While tapeworm infection is known to happen in the United States, it occurs much more frequently in developing countries. Tapeworm can be avoided through proper hand washing and cooking practices.
It is rare to show any signs of tapeworm as most patients with tapeworm have no symptoms. Most patients discover they have tapeworm infections when they notice tapeworm remnants in their stool. Patients infected with tapeworm often pass larvae, eggs, or sections of adult tapeworm when they eliminate solid waste. Noticing these parts of tapeworm can have a psychological impact, but with treatment most patients are tapeworm free. Those who do have symptoms may experience nausea, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, weakness, weight loss, and diarrhea. Sever tapeworm infections can cause vitamin deficiencies, fever, seizures, tissue damage, and organ damage.
Tapeworm is contracted through contaminated pork, beef, raw fish, and rarely chicken. Contaminated meats come from sewage that gets into the livestock’s feed and then into the muscle of the livestock. Humans eat the eggs when they eat undercooked contaminated meat. The eggs turn into tapeworms and can either attach to the intestinal wall or pass through the stool. Tapeworm infections happens much more often than many people realize, it just passes without incident through the stool. However, a tapeworm can live in the human body for up to 20 years and grow to 50 feet long. Each segment of an adult tapeworm can produce eggs. Larvae that stay in the intestines are easy to treat. Larvae that leave the intestines become much more difficult to treat.
TAPEWORM RISK FACTOR
Risk factors for tapeworm include poor hygiene habits, exposure to livestock, frequent travel into developing countries, preference for raw or undercooked meats, and neglecting to wash the hands after using the toilet. It is possible for a patient to re-infect themselves after or while being treated for tapeworm infections by re-ingesting the eggs the adult tapeworm left behind by not washing the hands after using the toilet.
Diagnosing can happen when the patient looks at their stool and realizes they are passing parts or whole tapeworms. Sometimes it takes a physician to diagnose tapeworm infections, and in this case a physical examination and blood tests based on patient complaints will help determine this. Tapeworm infections leave antibodies behind, and this can be picked up through blood tests. To determine if the tapeworm traveled outside the digestive tract imaging techniques such as MRIs and CT scans can help determine this.
Image: Parasitic Disease
Complications related to tapeworm infections vary by the length of infection and what type of tapeworm the patient is carrying. The beef tapeworm is basically non-threatening. The pork tapeworm can result in further complications, including lesions and cysts throughout the parts of the body which it has infected, neurocysticercosis, an infection of the brain and nervous system, meningitis, echinococcosis, which is cysts which develop on the liver or alternative organs, rupture the surrounding blood vessels, and obstruct circulation to that organ. This often results in organ transplants while neurocysticercosis often results in death.
Treatment options vary a bit by species which the patient has become infected. Oral medication is usually the first line of defense, and these medications stay within the digestive tract and either dissolves the adult tapeworm or attacks it outright. Medications are only able to target adult tapeworms and do not affect larvae or eggs, which can re-infect the patient through ingestion after using the toilet if proper hand washing procedures are ignored. If the tapeworm has left the digestive tract, anti-inflammatory medications are often used to help deal with the effects of the cysts caused by tapeworm infections in the organs, and surgical procedures are often necessary to remove the painful cysts. Organ transplants can be a last resort option when other treatments have failed.
The single greatest step to self care and coping with tapeworm is proper and frequent hand washing. Washing hands after using the toilet and before handling cooked or uncooked food is vital for the patient’s safety, and the safety of everyone else in the home. Physicians should take the time to teach patients proper hand washing techniques.
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