Human Intestinal Tapeworms: Signs, Symptoms, & Solutions
There are more than 1,500 species of tapeworms. In the United States, infections are due primarily to three species: the beef tapeworm, the fish tapeworm, and the dwarf tapeworm (the smallest species that infects humans).
The tapeworm is among the oldest known parasites in the world. They vary in size, from 6 inches to 26 feet long depending on the type of tapeworm infection. Described as flat and ribbon-like, tapeworms have three parts to their bodies: head, neck and body segments called proglottids.
The head has hooks that allow it to attach itself to the intestinal walls. As long as the head remains attached to the intestinal mucosa, it can survive and develop a new tapeworm. The proglottids contain eggs that can break off and travel throughout the body.
Tapeworms do not have intestinal tracts: they absorb partially digested substances from their host through their skin. Adult tapeworms can live in the digestive tracts of a variety of hosts such as humans, pigs, cows, dogs, cats and fish. Most tapeworms have both male and female reproductive organs, and reproduce and fertilize their own eggs.
Signs Of Tapeworm Infection
Reading through the list of symptoms, you'll understand why the signs of a tapeworm infection are often misdiagnosed. You are your own best advocate for proper diagnosis and treatment.
- Abdominal Discomfort
- Muscle Weakness
- Neurological Damage
- Weight loss
- Tapeworm Segments on Clothes or in Feces
- 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.
- 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 humans.
- Pork tapeworms are usually between 1/4 and 1/2 inch long, and inhabit pigs and humans.
- 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.
In North America the beef tapeworm (taenia saginata) is most common, although it is relatively well controlled. In Latin America the pork tapeworm (taenia solium) infects millions. The fish tapeworm (diphyllobothrium latum) and pork tapeworm are both common in Asia.
Once a tapeworm is born, it plays a sinister role. Eggs develop quickly into adventurous embryos. They leave the host's digestive system through bowel movements and then find the nearest water supply. Both animals and humans ingest baby tapeworms regularly.
The tapeworms' embryos are ingested either by drinking contaminated water or through direct contact with feces (another good reason to always wash your hands after using the toilet). For people infected with tapeworms, the embryo stage is when the parasite poses the most danger; it can develop into an insidious infection known as cysticercosis.
Estimates are that cysticercosis affects up to 50 million people worldwide, but most cases go unnoticed. Cysts are not typically noticed until an autopsy is performed. In a minority of cases, the tapeworms infect the central nervous system causing a potentially deadly condition called neurocysticercosis. Signs of neurocysticercosis are neurological damage and seizures.
It's an easy assumption that embryos develop into fully grown tapeworms, but they typically do not. The undeveloped tapeworms drill through their host's abdominal lining and dive into the blood stream. Veins and arteries act as highways directing and transporting the tapeworms to any and all major organs and muscles.
Once the embryo finds its home – in a large muscle or the liver – it encloses itself into a fluid sac called a cyst. The embryo doesn't leave the sac until the flesh of its host (a cow for example) is eaten by another animal (you, for instance). In fact, this is most often how people contract tapeworms.
If you have a tapeworm in your stomach or gut, odds are you won't even know it. If you do experience signs, they'll barely be noticeable and will more than likely be misdiagnosed and attributed to stress, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), upset stomach or some other common ailment. In fact, the only time people seem to realize they have a tapeworm is, after defecation, upon noticing the headless worm bodies in their stool.
There are many steps you can take to avoid a tapeworm infection.
- Avoid undercooked meat and fish
- Cook meat at temperatures of at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit
- Freeze fish for 24 hours before cooking
- Freeze meat for 12 hours before cooking
- Promptly treat tapeworm in pets or livestock
- Wash hands before and after handling meat
- Wash hands before eating
- Wash hands after using the toilet
Employ these simple rules and you won't be among the millions who deal with tapeworm infestations and the unpleasant side effects associated with an infection.
There are naturopathic and western medical options for removing tapeworms from your gut and intestines. A combination of various herbs formulated in a reputable colon cleansing program is often successful. A colon cleansing has the added benefit of reducing bouts of constipation, lowering the risk of developing diverticulosis, increasing energy levels, and potentially instigating weight loss.
Conventional drug options are quinacrine hydrochloride (Atabrine) or niclosamide. A tapeworm embryo will require two separate drugs: praziquantel and albendazole. Beware of the many potential side effects that come with prescription drugs and the lack of additional health benefits.
If you and/or your doctor think you've been infected with tapeworm cysts, an antibody test can identify the infection. If you have neurological symptoms, the cysts can be located using magnetic resonance imaging MRI). Most people recover from tapeworm infections, though – depending on which organs were infected though – some long-term may result.
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Finding a tapeworm in your stool can be shocking and frightening. While it can be a potential health risk, it's very treatable with both eastern and western medicines.
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