What are tapeworms?

If you have tapeworms, you may not have any symptoms. You may also notice symptoms such as: nausea or diarrhea, abdominal pain, hunger or loss of appetite, fatigue and weakness, weight loss, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and tapeworm segments visible in your bowel movements.
If you have tapeworms, you may not have any symptoms. You may also notice symptoms such as: nausea or diarrhea, abdominal pain, hunger or loss of appetite, fatigue and weakness, weight loss, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and tapeworm segments visible in your bowel movements.

If you get tapeworms in your system, you can have a variety of symptoms. The severity depends on whether you consumed the tapeworms themselves or just the eggs of the worms.

There are medications to effectively treat tapeworms. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of tapeworms.

Tapeworms are a type of intestinal parasite. The flat, segmented worms live in humans and animals. They can live for decades inside a host. The adult tapeworms live mainly in their host’s intestines but tapeworm larva can travel to other parts of the body.

The most common way people get tapeworms is by eating raw or undercooked meat from an affected animal. You can reduce your risk of tapeworm infections by cooking meat to an appropriate temperature and washing your hands well before eating.

Symptoms of tapeworms

Tapeworms go through three life stages. They start as eggs, become larva, then grow to adult tapeworms. People get tapeworms by ingesting the eggs or larva without realizing it.

If you consume meat with tapeworm larvae in it, the larvae stay in your body, attach to your intestinal wall, and continue to grow. They become adult tapeworms, which are long and segmented with a pointed head. The head stays attached to your intestine.

This type of tapeworm infection is called taeniasis, or intestinal infection.

As the tapeworm grows, the segments, called proglottids, fill with eggs then break off. They leave your body when you pass bowel movements.

Tapeworms can live for up to 30 years and grow to as large as 80 feet, though they are usually much smaller.

If you have taeniasis, you may not have any symptoms. You may also notice symptoms such as:

  1. Nausea or diarrhea
  2. Abdominal pain
  3. Hunger or loss of appetite
  4. Fatigue and weakness
  5. Weight loss
  6. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  7. Tapeworm segments visible in your bowel movements

If you ingest tapeworm eggs, they grow into larvae inside your body. The larvae can leave the intestine and create larval cysts in other organs. This is called cysticercosis.

The cysts from cysticercosis can develop in your muscles, eyes, spinal cord, or brain. When this happens, you could experience symptoms that include:

  1. Lumps under the skin
  2. Seizures and/or headaches
  3. Confusion and balance problems
  4. Brain swelling
  5. Stroke or death

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Types of tapeworms

There are three main types of tapeworms that affect humans.

  1. Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm)
  2. Taenia solium (pork tapeworm)
  3. Taenia asiatica (Asian tapeworm)

The beef tapeworm can contaminate meat from cows. The pork and Asian varieties contaminate meat from pigs.

Tapeworms exist anywhere there is livestock. However, tapeworm infections are more common in parts of the world such as Latin America, China, sub-Saharan Africa, or Southeast Asia. Any area with limited sanitation systems can also be a high-risk spot for tapeworms.

Causes of tapeworms

Humans and other animals pass tapeworm eggs and larvae in their feces. If feces gets into the vegetation or water an animal consumes, the animal will get the parasites from that. Humans can then get tapeworms from eating the meat of the animal.

People who work around livestock are at risk of getting tapeworm through their exposure to animal feces. If you handle infected feces and don’t wash your hands thoroughly before eating, you can accidentally ingest the tapeworms.

In rare cases, people can get tapeworms from human feces. This is more common in places without adequate plumbing and sewage disposal.

When to see a doctor for tapeworms

If you think you have either type of tapeworm infection, you should call your doctor. Your doctor will help you decide if you need treatment right away or not.

Diagnosis and tests for tapeworms

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms first. They may ask if you have recently traveled to areas where tapeworms are common or if you have been around pigs or cows. They will want to know if you might have eaten contaminated meat recently.

To check if you have tapeworms in your intestine, your doctor will ask for stool samples. They can put the samples under a microscope to look for tapeworm segments and their eggs.

If your doctor suspects you have an invasive tapeworm infection, they may order blood tests to check for infection. They may also suggest you get an MRI or CT scan to see if there are larvae in your brain.

How do you get rid of tapeworms?

People around the world are quite often infected with parasites, including worms. There are different kinds of parasitic worms that will invade your body if given the chance. One of them is the tapeworm. The good news is that it is not that hard to rid yourself of tapeworms if you discover that you have been infected.

Tapeworms are flatworms that can live in your digestive system. The tapeworm finds its way into your intestines. It then attaches its head to the inner wall and feeds on the food that you are digesting.

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Treatments for a tapeworm infection

After your doctor confirms that you have this parasite they may prescribe the following medications to get rid of your tapeworms:

In rare cases, tapeworms can lead to serious complications. These include blocking your intestines or the smaller ducts in your GI tract, such as the bile or pancreatic ducts.

Preventing a tapeworm infection

Here are some of the ways that you can protect yourself from or reduce the risk of a tapeworm infection:

  • Wash your hands with soap and hot water before and after using the bathroom
  • Avoid eating raw meat, including fish
  • Always ensure that you thoroughly cook meat, including fish
  • Freeze any raw meat that you purchase to kill any tapeworm eggs prior to cooking and consuming
  • Avoid eating raw vegetables
  • Wash your hands with soap and hot water before preparing or eating

Complications and side effects of tapeworm treatments

Some of the medications used to get rid of tapeworms may cause harmful side effects.

Praziquantel may cause vomiting, an allergic reaction, headache, dizziness, rash, stomach discomfort, or a fever.

Seek emergency medical assistance if you experience the following symptoms of a serious allergic reaction:

  • Hives
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.

Albendazole may cause liver problems, stomach pain, dizziness, headache, nausea, and vomiting. You should not use it if you are pregnant. It is not recommended for children under 6 months of age.

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Medically Reviewed on 3/2/2022
References
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Cysticercosis."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Cysticercosis Diagnosis."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Taeniasis."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Taeniasis Diagnosis."

Mayo Clinic: "Tapeworm Infection."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Parasites - Taeniasis."

Healthy Children: "Tapeworms."

HSE: "Diphyllobothrium latum."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Tapeworm."

Kids Health: "Tapeworm."

Mayo Clinic: "Praziquantel (Oral Route)."

NPS MEDICINEWISE: "Albendazole (Zentel) listing extended to treat hookworm and strongyloidiasis."

World Health Organization: "What you need to know about tapeworm infections."