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You Have a Tapeworm — Now What?

You’ve got uninvited company. But this time it’s not your in-laws. Surprise! It’s a tapeworm that’s taken residence in your gut. What’s your next move?

So you have a tapeworm, do you? Let’s backtrack for a minute here.

First of all, what is a tapeworm?

Tapeworms are flat, worm-like parasites that can wriggle their way into the intestines of both people and animals. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

There are a handful of different species, including pork tapeworms (Taenia solium), beef tapeworms (Taenia saginata), and fish tapeworms (Diphyllobothrium laturn), to name a few.

Just how common are they?

In the United States, tapeworms are fairly rare. Then again, because most infections don’t cause any symptoms at all, it’s hard to know for sure. In other words, we think they’re uncommon, but who knows?

In fact, just last month, CNN reported that eating raw or undercooked wild salmon from the Pacific coast posed a risk of Japanese broad tapeworm infection.

A study published in the CDC’s monthly Emerging Infectious Diseases confirmed that wild Alaskan salmon had been infected with Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense, a tapeworm formerly believed to only affect fish in Asia.

It’s possible to have a tapeworm without knowing it. In fact, most people don’t experience any symptoms. That leaves researchers with little evidence as to how many people have been infected.

What do tapeworms do?

When a tapeworm finds its way into your digestive tract, it clings to the wall of your intestines and freeloads off your nutrients. It begins to grow small segments known as proglottids, each of which contains eggs

You might experience symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, weakness and fatigue, weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, and hunger or loss of appetite. But more often, tapeworm infections don’t cause any symptoms at all.

Wait. How does a tapeworm even get into your digestive system in the first place?

Eating undercooked meat or fish is one of the most common ways to pick up a tapeworm.

Tapeworm eggs survive for a long time — sometimes months — in infected excrement. Animals who ingest contaminated excrement, whether by grazing or drinking contaminated water, then become infected. Fish tapeworm infections are also passed through feces.

Once ingested, the eggs grow into larvae which harden into cysts inside the animal’s muscle.

You can guess what happens next — that animal ends up raw or undercooked on your plate, allowing tapeworm larvae to enter your digestive system. Really makes you crave some fresh sushi, doesn’t it?

I think I have a tapeworm. What should I do?

If have reason to believe you might have a tapeworm, you should see your doctor. A stool sample — that is, a poop sample — is the best way to diagnose a tapeworm. CT scans and MRIs may also be used if your doctor suspects damage to areas other than the digestive tract.

How are tapeworm infections treated?

Not to worry — most tapeworms can be effectively treated with oral meds. After diagnosis, your doctor may prescribe a drug that targets the tapeworm. Once your stool is free of tapeworm eggs, larvae, and proglottids, you’re home free.

[Image via Getty]

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