A tapeworm infection almost always occurs when you eat food or drink water that’s been contaminated. Medically known as taeniasis, it involves ingesting tapeworm eggs or larvae. According to the Mayo Clinic, most people have no idea that they’re infected.
The infection can become serious if the eggs develop into larvae, move out of your intestines and form cysts in other organs such as the liver. When you ingest larvae instead of eggs, however, they routinely develop into adult tapeworms that take up residence in your intestinal tract. This condition typically causes few if any symptoms.
Most often, individuals first realize they’re infected when they pass segments of the worm from their body when they go to the bathroom. MedlinePlus reports that tapeworms have many segments, each of which can produce eggs. They’re the most noticeable if they leave the body when the segments are moving. Their most common sources for transmission are pork, beef and raw freshwater fish.
While a normal infestation doesn’t cause any symptoms that you would notice, you can develop complications. In rare circumstances, you might suffer a blockage somewhere in your intestinal tract. If pork tapeworm larvae migrate from the intestine, they can cause growths and damage to organs like the brain, heart or eye. The medical name of this condition is cysticercosis. If you contract an infection of the brain from a tapeworm, you might suffer seizures and other issues with your nervous system.
In instances where a patient does sense that something is wrong, the signs can include nausea, feelings of weakness and loss of appetite. Other possibilities include diarrhea, abdominal pain, and weight loss accompanied by insufficient nutrient absorption after eating.
Fortunately, most tapeworm infestations can be prevented by washing your hands before eating and steering clear of raw or undercooked meat or fish. If you do develop an infection, your doctor will most likely treat it with a single dose of a medication you can take by mouth. Drug choices include niclosamide, praziquantel and albendazole.
You might be suffering from an invasive tapeworm infection if the damage outside your intestinal tract causes fever, cystic masses or lumps or allergic reactions to the larvae. You could also experience infections caused by bacteria or neurological symptoms if the invasion has reached your brain. Once the larvae have migrated to parts of your body beyond the intestines, the situation is harder to cure. When a tapeworm infection remains untreated, it can be life-threatening.
At the invasive stage, you might require an anti-inflammatory steroid to cut the swelling caused by cysts. It’s also possible that your physician will recommend surgery if your organs are damaged. In the most advanced cases, you might be facing one or more organ transplants.
It’s important to see your doctor if you show any signs of an infection, particularly if you pass anything that resembles a white worm. You should also seek medical attention if you suspect you’ve been exposed to contaminated food or water.
Confirmation that you have a tapeworm infection can take a while when the laboratory uses microscope identification methods to hunt for eggs or segments. Sometimes this involves submitting several stool samples over a period of time.