When you ingest food or water contaminated with tapeworm eggs or larvae, you may contract a tapeworm infection. The larvae can grow into adult tapeworms in your intestines. Certain types of tapeworm larvae can travel outside your intestines and create larval cysts in your body's tissues and organs, leading to serious complications.
Many people with intestinal tapeworm infections don't experience any symptoms and don't even realize they have it. When symptoms do occur, they can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, intestinal inflammation, weight loss, appetite changes, and malnutrition from inadequate absorption of nutrients. Intestinal tapeworms can also leave infected individuals feeling generally weak, dizzy, and fatigued. You may see parts of the tapeworm in your stool. In severe cases, intestinal tapeworm infections can cause seizures and B12 deficiency.
Intestinal tapeworms generally don't cause any complications. However, if a tapeworm grows big enough, it can block your appendix, which can lead to appendicitis, an infection in your appendix. A tapeworm can also block the pancreatic duct, which transports digestive fluids from your pancreas to your intestine or your bile ducts, which in turn transport bile from your gallbladder and liver to your intestines.
Invasive tapeworm infections occur when tapeworm larvae travel outside the intestines and form cysts in other tissues and organs. Symptoms of invasive tapeworm infection include headaches, allergic reactions to the tapeworm larvae, lumps or cystic masses, and neurological symptoms such as seizures.
Neurocysticercosis is an especially dangerous complication that can occur in people with invasive pork tapeworm infections. Symptoms include headaches, meningitis, visual impairment, seizures, hydrocephalus, and dementia. In severe cases, these complications can prove fatal. When tapeworm larvae travel to your lungs, liver, or other organs, they form cysts that can grow so large they interfere with that organ's ability to function. If a tapeworm cyst ruptures, it releases more larvae into your body that can travel to other tissues and organs. A leaking or ruptured cyst can also cause allergic-like responses including itching, swelling, hives, and breathing difficulties.
You can ingest tapeworm eggs when you consume food or water contaminated with feces from an infected animal or human. For instance, a cow with tapeworm passes the eggs in its stool, which can get into the soil. If that soil comes into contact with water or a food source, this source will be contaminated.
Animals who have tapeworm infections have larvae in their muscle tissue. If you consume undercooked or raw meat from an infected animal, you can be infected. While some adult tapeworms pass out of your body through your stool, others may attach to the walls of your intestines where they can survive for up to 30 years.
Certain things put you at higher risk of getting a tapeworm. Traveling to developing countries and eating undercooked or raw meat, for instance, as well as poor hygiene: not bathing or washing your hands frequently enough increases the chance of contaminated material accidentally making its way into your mouth.
To diagnose an intestinal tapeworm infection, your doctor will need to send samples of your stool to a laboratory, where technicians will examine them for tapeworm eggs or segments. Tapeworm eggs and segments are passed out of your body through your stool on an irregular basis, so your doctor may need to send the lab two or three samples for confirmation. Blood tests can also be used to diagnose invasive tapeworm infections. Antibodies in your blood can tell the lab which type of tapeworm you have.
Sometimes, no treatment is necessary for intestinal tapeworm because the tapeworm passes out of the body through your stool. If this doesn't happen, and the tapeworm attaches inside you, the most common treatment method is oral medication, the type of which depends on what type of tapeworm you have, and what part of the body it is affecting. Medications used to kill adult tapeworms don't kill eggs, so your doctor will continue to test your stool until he's sure the infection is gone.
Anthelmintic drugs may be able to shrink tapeworm cysts. Sometimes, cysts can be surgically removed. Cysts in the lungs, eyes, and liver are typically removed surgically, as they can interfere with organ function.
You can prevent tapeworm infections by washing your hands with soap and water after using the restroom and before handling or eating food. Don't eat undercooked or raw beef, pork, or fish. Cook meat to a temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit to kill tapeworm larvae and eggs. Alternatively, you can kill tapeworm eggs and larvae by freezing fish for at least 24 hours and meat for seven to 10 days in a freezer with a temperature of -31 degrees.
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