What are tapeworms?
If you have tapeworms, you may not have any symptoms. You may also notice symptoms such as: nausea or diarrhea, abdominal pain, hunger or loss of appetite, fatigue and weakness, weight loss, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and tapeworm segments visible in your bowel movements.
If you get tapeworms in your system, you can have a variety of symptoms. The severity depends on whether you consumed the tapeworms themselves or just the eggs of the worms.
There are medications to effectively treat tapeworms. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of tapeworms.
Tapeworms are a type of intestinal parasite. The flat, segmented worms live in humans and animals. They can live for decades inside a host. The adult tapeworms live mainly in their host’s intestines but tapeworm larva can travel to other parts of the body.
The most common way people get tapeworms is by eating raw or undercooked meat from an affected animal. You can reduce your risk of tapeworm infections by cooking meat to an appropriate temperature and washing your hands well before eating.
Symptoms of tapeworms
Tapeworms go through three life stages. They start as eggs, become larva, then grow to adult tapeworms. People get tapeworms by ingesting the eggs or larva without realizing it.
If you consume meat with tapeworm larvae in it, the larvae stay in your body, attach to your intestinal wall, and continue to grow. They become adult tapeworms, which are long and segmented with a pointed head. The head stays attached to your intestine.
This type of tapeworm infection is called taeniasis, or intestinal infection.
As the tapeworm grows, the segments, called proglottids, fill with eggs then break off. They leave your body when you pass bowel movements.
Tapeworms can live for up to 30 years and grow to as large as 80 feet, though they are usually much smaller.
If you have taeniasis, you may not have any symptoms. You may also notice symptoms such as:
- Nausea or diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
- Hunger or loss of appetite
- Fatigue and weakness
- Weight loss
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- Tapeworm segments visible in your bowel movements
The cysts from cysticercosis can develop in your muscles, eyes, spinal cord, or brain. When this happens, you could experience symptoms that include:
- Lumps under the skin
- Seizures and/or headaches
- Confusion and balance problems
- Brain swelling
- Stroke or death
Bowel regularity means a bowel movement every day.
Types of tapeworms
There are three main types of tapeworms that affect humans.
- Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm)
- Taenia solium (pork tapeworm)
- Taenia asiatica (Asian tapeworm)
The beef tapeworm can contaminate meat from cows. The pork and Asian varieties contaminate meat from pigs.
Tapeworms exist anywhere there is livestock. However, tapeworm infections are more common in parts of the world such as Latin America, China, sub-Saharan Africa, or Southeast Asia. Any area with limited sanitation systems can also be a high-risk spot for tapeworms.
Causes of tapeworms
Humans and other animals pass tapeworm eggs and larvae in their feces. If feces gets into the vegetation or water an animal consumes, the animal will get the parasites from that. Humans can then get tapeworms from eating the meat of the animal.
People who work around livestock are at risk of getting tapeworm through their exposure to animal feces. If you handle infected feces and don’t wash your hands thoroughly before eating, you can accidentally ingest the tapeworms.
In rare cases, people can get tapeworms from human feces. This is more common in places without adequate plumbing and sewage disposal.
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When to see a doctor for tapeworms
If you think you have either type of tapeworm infection, you should call your doctor. Your doctor will help you decide if you need treatment right away or not.
Diagnosis and tests for tapeworms
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms first. They may ask if you have recently traveled to areas where tapeworms are common or if you have been around pigs or cows. They will want to know if you might have eaten contaminated meat recently.
To check if you have tapeworms in your intestine, your doctor will ask for stool samples. They can put the samples under a microscope to look for tapeworm segments and their eggs.
If your doctor suspects you have an invasive tapeworm infection, they may order blood tests to check for infection. They may also suggest you get an MRI or CT scan to see if there are larvae in your brain.
Treatments for tapeworms
Both intestinal and invasive tapeworm infections can be treated with medication. In rare cases, invasive tapeworm infections require surgery.
Not all tapeworm infections need treatment. Your doctor can tell you if treatment is right for you.