The idea of worms in the body gives many people the chills, but tiny parasites are present in around 80% of children and adults, usually in the intestines. Luckily, there is a difference between parasite stowaways and problematic parasitic infection. Flatworms, flukes, and roundworms are most responsible for parasitic worm infections. Tapeworm exposure is almost exclusively the result of contaminated water or food, while flatworms are generally introduced by raw or undercooked meat. Flukes usually make their way into the system through freshwater plants, while hookworms rely on contaminated soil and feces for transmission. Pinworms usually affect children and are relatively harmless. Trichinosis worms are not common today but can enter the body via undercooked meat. While worms produce a myriad of symptoms, some are more common than others.
People returning from a trip to a country where hygiene regulations for food and water are less stringent than in North America should be vigilant about their health for the next months. Worms residing in unsanitary conditions are most likely to cause an infection in their host.
While threadworms or pinworms can infect adults, the vast majority of cases occur in children. The eggs hatch in the intestines and the worms travel to the anus, laying their eggs there late at night. A child with a persistently itchy bottom could be infected with threadworms. Irritability or behavioral changes caused by sleep disruption can also indicate this infection.
A tapeworm infection can cause the infected person to develop an insatiable appetite. This happens because the worm is consuming the nutrients intended for the host. Some tapeworms can reach 50 feet in length. Alternatively, many parasitic infections make the host lose their appetite. Both these symptoms can result in unexpected weight loss.
In addition to possible appetite fluctuations, intestinal worms can cause other stomach disturbances, including constipation, diarrhea, gas, and other symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Some people also experience overall stomach discomfort, such as bloating or sharp pain.
Intestinal worm infections are not limited to physical symptoms. Irritability, mood swings, confusion, and other mental effects can also occur. In rare cases, patients develop severe mood disorders, including unexplained rage and depression, that usually vanish once the infection has been eradicated.
Some people with worms develop skin rashes. When a person usually has clear, healthy skin, this can be one of the most obvious signs of a health problem, though a worm infestation may not be the most obvious cause. Hives, itchy dermatitis, ulcers, sores, lesions, and more can surface during an infection. Experts believe some worms cause an allergic reaction that triggers itching and skin problems.
Extreme fatigue and overall physical malaise can also indicate an infection of intestinal worms. Hookworms and whipworms attach to the walls of the intestines and may cause blood loss. Over time, this bleeding can lead to anemia, most commonly iron-deficiency anemia. The fish tapeworm can cause a significant loss of vitamin B12, which can also lead to anemia and fatigue.
Some worms can trigger lung symptoms, including shortness of breath, coughing, and congestion. Eating undercooked crab contaminated with flatworms can lead to paragonimiasis, a worm infection of the lungs. The infection starts in the intestinal tract, but the worms can move to the lungs where they cause cough, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort. Paragonimiasis is not common in the United States, although it still occurs in other countries. Most of the parasites that cause lung symptoms are found in tropical and sub-tropical climates.
Trichinosis cases have been decreasing in the United States steadily for decades. However, it is still possible to contract an infection if one consumes undercooked pork infected with the worms. People with trichinosis may develop nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, a fever, facial swelling, muscle pain, headaches, or light sensitivity, and require medical attention.
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