Tapeworm Symptoms, Treatment, And Prevention
What are Tapeworms?
Tapeworms (cestoda) are a type of parasitic flatworm that live in the intestines of the bodies of host organisms, such as humans, cows, pigs, dogs, and cats. The most common tapeworms in humans are fish tapeworm, beef tapeworm, pork tapeworm, and dwarf tapeworm.
Fish tapeworms are the longest tapeworms, averaging about 30 feet long, but growing up to 100 feet. They can affect humans, bears, dogs, cats, seals, and weasels.
Beef tapeworms usually range between 10 to 15 feet, but can grow up to 65 feet long in some cases. They most commonly infect cows and humans, but can only reproduce asexually in human hosts.
Pork tapeworms are usually between 5 and 10 feet long, and inhabit pigs and humans.
Dwarf tapeworms are the smallest kind of tapeworm commonly affecting humans, only a few tenths of an inch long. They live in the intestines of rats (and, of course, people).
Life cycles of these types of tapeworms can be seen below. Click the thumbnail to see full-size images.
A Tapeworms' Life CycleClick thumbnail to view full-size
Causes & Prevention of Tapeworms
As you can see from the illustrations of tapeworm life cycles above, the cause of growth in humans is eating undercooked, infected meat or other means of ingesting tapeworm eggs or larvae. Therefore, prevention emphasizes personal hygeine and cooking methods.
Tips for Preventing Tapeworms:
- Wash hands after using the toilet
- Wash hands before and after handling meat
- Wash hands before eating
- Freeze meat for 12 hours before cooking
- Freeze fish for 24 hours before cooking
- Cook meat at temperatures of at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit
- Avoid undercooked meat and fish
- Promptly treat tapeworm in pets or livestock
Pictures of Tapeworms
Symptoms of Tapeworms
Often, tapeworm infections present no symptoms whatsoever. When symptoms do arise, however, it's important to pay attention. Keep in mind that not all of these symptoms will necessarily appear together.
If you have been exposed to undercooked meat or infected animals, and have any doubt about whether or not you might have tapeworms, please consult your doctor immediately.
Signs of Intestinal Tapeworm Infection
- Muscle weakness
- Weight loss
- Abdominal Pain
- Passing worm sections in stool
Tapeworms can also move out of the intestines and start infesting other tissues. This is a much more serious condition, causing complications that can require treatment in their own right.
Complications of Invasive Tapeworm Infection
- Cystic lumps or masses
- Allergic reactions
- Bacterial infections
- Possible seizures (where brain tissue is involved)
If you are diagnosed with tapeworms by your doctor (usually by stool sample), there is effective treatment.
Since tapeworms prevent the aborption of food, and also medication, the most common course of treatment for tapeworms must attack the worms directly. Your doctor will usually prescribe one of several anthelmintics (parasite-expelling drugs), which are toxic to the worms. These medications kill and dissolve the bodies of adult tapeworms, but do not exterminate larvae, so it is key to avoid reinfection using the prevention tips above.
Doctors often recommend a gentle laxative to ease the passing of the tapeworms, but because tapeworms attach themselves with barbed hooks to the inside of your intestinal walls, laxatives are not usually an effective treatment by themselves, contrary to proponents of colon cleansing.
If you have an invasive infection including cysts, anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids may be used to reduce swelling. In extreme cases, where cysts are life-threatening, surgery may be necessary.
While the word "parasite" is a scary one, there is not usually a need for excessive concern where tapeworms are concerned, unless they have gone undetected for long periods of time. In people who receive appropriate treatment, over 95% are successfully rid of all eggs, larvae, and adult worms.