Tapeworm or the Cestoda are a type of parasitic flatworms that live in the digestive tract of human beings. These parasites may live inside its human host for years and grow as long as 30 feet or more. The common mode of infection is through improperly cooked foods or consumption of water or foods that already contain the tapeworm eggs or larvae.
While in some cases a human being may not be aware of this infection till he passes the whole organism or its body fragments through stool, in other cases the symptoms do show up. However, most of these symptoms are often confused as those being caused by other disorders, and hence the infection may go undetected for long. In certain cases some serious complications may also show up.
Tapeworms that Infect Humans
There are several species of tapeworm that can infect human beings. However, there are three most common ones. They are the pork tapeworm (Taenia solium), the beef tapeworm (Taenia saginata), and the fish tapeworm (Diphyllobothrium latum). Other varieties that infect human beings are the dwarf tapeworm (Hymenolepis nana) and the rodent tapeworm (Hymenolepis diminuta).
The symptoms of this condition in children are often caused due to infection by the dwarf tapeworm as they are passed on through the stool of infected individuals. Although usual hosts of the rodent tapeworm are the rats, mice, and other rodents, this type intestinal parasite in human (the tapeworm) finds way through meal worms or grain beetles that infest our food.
Human beings can either ingest the eggs that grow into larvae inside the body or consume larvae that invariably grow into adult tapeworms. While adult ones lodge themselves in the intestine, and show mild symptoms, the larvae that hatch from the eggs are small enough to travel through bloodstream and reach other tissues. These larvae form cysts in other tissues that may then cause serious complications.
Adult Tapeworm Infection Symptoms
Intestinal infection may be asymptomatic, that is there may be no symptoms at all. In certain cases an individual may show the following mild symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Appearance of the whole organism or segments of its body in one's stool
The last symptom is something that one must be careful about. Just because a segment of the Taenia body is being passed out doesn't mean that the organism is dead. If the head or the scolex remains inside the intestine, the organism will grow to its full length and again infect the host. Also, since most of the symptoms of tapeworm in the intestine are similar to those caused by other not so serious ailments, this infection is often overlooked as the cause of the symptoms.
Larval Tapeworm Infection Signs and Symptoms
If one ingests the eggs, and the larvae develop inside the body, these larvae may reach other tissues, form cysts, and cause tissue or organ damage. Some of the common symptoms of larval infection are:
- Cystic masses or lumps
- Allergic reactions to the larvae
- Neurological symptoms, if the brain is affected
One very important condition that needs mention here is cysticercosis. This is a serious complication of the Taenia solium, in which the larva moves outside the intestine. In this case, the larvae can develop in various tissues of the body. However, the condition worsens when the larvae lodge inside the tissues of the brain. This infection is known as neurocysticercosis. This condition results in seizures and other neurological problems. Although this condition is pretty uncommon, unhygienic habits of an infected person can transfer this parasite onto a healthy individual.
Treatment of the worms that have moved out of the intestine and invaded other tissues of the body must be carried out as soon as possible. There are medicines that work for treatment of tapeworm in human. These include praziquantel (Biltricide) or albendazole (Albenza), as well as niclosamide. However, these are effective only against adult worms.
As long as one is under treatment, he/she should be careful about cleaning his hands properly after using the toilet and before eating. This is to prevent oneself from getting reinfected with the eggs. In case cysts have formed in other tissues of the body, anti-inflammatory steroids may be prescribed to reduce the swelling. In certain cases, surgical removal of the cyst may be required.
Exercising caution and maintaining hygiene is the best way to avoid infection of these intestinal parasites. This is specially important to prevent infection in children.