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What Is a Tapeworm Infection?

Tapeworms are flat worms that can live in a person's digestive tract. Tapeworm infections are rare in the United States. When they do happen, they're easy to treat. Often, people may not know they have a tapeworm infection because they have no symptoms or their symptoms are mild.

What Causes a Tapeworm Infection?

Tapeworms get into the body when someone eats or drinks something that's infected with a worm or its eggs. Once inside the body, the tapeworm head attaches to the inner wall of the intestines and feeds off the food being digested. Pieces of the tapeworm break off and come out of the body in feces (poop), along with the eggs they contain. If this infected poop gets into soil or water, it can infect other people or animals.

Most people with a tapeworm infection got it by:

  • eating raw or undercooked beef, pork, or fish infected with tapeworm
  • contact with poop that contains tapeworm eggs. People can pass tapeworm eggs to others when they don't wash their hands after using the bathroom. Tapeworm eggs in feces can then spread into food or onto surfaces like doorknobs.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of a Tapeworm Infection?

Most kids who have a tapeworm infection don't notice anything. It can take months or years for signs to start. Then, a child might complain of:

  • mild nausea
  • diarrhea
  • belly pain
  • weight loss

Kids with a tapeworm infection may feel a piece of the worm coming out through the anus (where the poop comes out). You may even see a piece of worm in the poop.

A tapeworm that's in the intestines for a long time can get big and block the appendix or other organs, leading to appendicitis and other problems.

There are different types of tapeworm. One (fish tapeworm) can cause anemia because it uses up the vitamin B12 that a person needs to make red blood cells.

The eggs of another type of tapeworm (pork tapeworm) cause a disease called cysticercosis (sis-tuh-ser-KOE-sis). This happens when pork tapeworm eggs from poop get into someone's mouth. (It doesn't happen from eating contaminated pork.) They hatch into larvae, then go through the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream. From there they can travel to different organs in the body, such as muscles, eyes, or brain, where they form cysts. This can lead to:

  • lumps under the skin
  • seizures
  • vision problems
  • an abnormal heartbeat
  • weakness or trouble walking

Cysticercosis is rare in the United States, but common in many developing countries.

How Is a Tapeworm Infection Diagnosed?

To diagnose a tapeworm infection, doctors will collect and examine a stool sample on 3 different days to check for tapeworm eggs or pieces of worm. They may also do a blood test.

If a child could have cysticercosis, the doctor might recommend a CT (CAT) scan or MRI of the brain or other organs to look for cysts.

How Is a Tapeworm Infection Treated?

Doctors treat tapeworm infections with prescription anti-parasite drugs. Often, one dose is enough.

For cysticercosis that causes hydrocephalus (excess fluid in the brain), doctors may put in a shunt to drain excess fluid. Surgeons will remove cysts if they cause problems with the eyes, liver, lungs, heart, or other organs.

Can Tapeworm Infections Be Prevented?

To help protect your family from tapeworm infections:

  • Wash your hands well and often with soap and warm water, especially after using the bathroom and before touching food. Teach your kids to do the same.
  • Cook meat until juices run clear and the centers are no longer pink.
  • Cook fish until it is solid in color (no longer clear) and flakes when separated with a fork.
  • Freeze meat for 24 hours before cooking to kill any tapeworm eggs.

If you live in or travel to areas where tapeworm infections are common:

  • Wash and cook all fruits and vegetables with safe water.
  • Avoid raw or undercooked meat and fish, raw fruits and vegetables that you didn't peel yourself, and any food from street vendors.
  • Drink only water that's been boiled for at least a minute, bottled water, or other beverages in bottles and cans.
  • At restaurants, ask if their water and ice are filtered.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call a doctor if:

  • You see worms in your child's poop.
  • Your child shows signs of infection after travel to an area that doesn't have good sanitation.
  • Your child has masses or lumps under the skin and develops a fever, headache, or any of the other symptoms of cysticercosis.

If your child has seizures or trouble moving, walking, or talking, go to the emergency room right away.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: Oct 14, 2019

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