Medically reviewed by Jonathan B. Jassey, DO
A tapeworm is a type of parasite that lives in the intestines of animals. Taeniasis is a parasite infection caused by tapeworms found in beef (Taenia saginata), pork (Taenia solium), and Asian tapeworm (Taenia asiatica). Hymenolepis nana (dwarf tapeworm) and Diphyllobothrium latum (fish tapeworm) are two other tapeworms that affect humans.
Tapeworms often cause very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Symptoms may include stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and weight loss. Unlike adult tapeworms, larvae can cause serious complications if they develop outside the intestines, including sites like the brain, liver, muscles, and lungs.
Tapeworm infection is a form of food poisoning. Infection occurs after eating undercooked or raw meat or fish containing tapeworm eggs.
Tiny tapeworm larvae mature into adult tapeworms, which can grow to be over 30 feet long and live for years in the intestines. The tapeworms consist of segments, and each segment is capable of producing eggs. These eggs can be released individually or in groups and are passed out of the body through the stool or anus.
Tapeworms generally don't cause severe health issues. Mild symptoms might include slight stomach pain and itching around the anus from proglottids (worm segments) passing through. The passing of tapeworm segments through the anus and in feces is the clearest sign of infection.
Other possible symptoms include:
Tapeworms cause minimal inflammation because they have limited contact with the intestinal lining. This might be why many people experience such mild symptoms. Children are more likely to have symptoms, but their symptoms are similar to those in adults.
Less Common Symptoms
Less common symptoms of tapeworm infection include:
Related: Signs and Symptoms of Food Poisoning
In rare cases, tapeworms can cause blockages in the intestines, pancreas, or bile duct system that require surgery. The bile duct system consists of tubes that carry bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine.
One 2020 case study examined an Ethiopian man who had been experiencing stomach pain, repeated vomiting, and loss of appetite for a month. He didn't have diarrhea, changes in stool color, or fever. Using an endoscope, physicians discovered a tapeworm almost completely blocking the pylorus ring—the part of the digestive system located at the lower part of the stomach, where the stomach connects to the small intestine.
Healthcare providers used a special tool called biopsy forceps to gently move the worm down into the duodenum (first part of the small intestine), relieving the blockage. The patient was treated with a single dose of praziquantel and passed dead worms through his stool three days later.
Ingesting the eggs (larvae) of pork tapeworms (Taenia solium) in feces can cause an infection called cysticercosis. This can happen, for example, if someone who has tapeworms doesn't wash their hands before preparing food for others. The tapeworm larvae can leave the intestines and form fluid-filled sacs called cysts in different parts of the body like the brain, skin, muscles, or eyes.
Neurocysticercosis (NCC) affects the central nervous system, forming cysts in the brain. It can lead to seizures and other nervous system complications like:
Hydrocephalus (excess fluid around the brain).
NCC is significantly correlated with epilepsy, a neurological condition that causes recurrent seizures.
Cysticercosis can also lead to serious complications when the larvae develop in muscles, skin, or eyes. Symptoms depend on the body tissue affected. For example, muscle cysts do not typically cause symptoms, but eye cysts can lead to problems like blurry or altered vision, swelling, or a detached retina.
When to Contact a Healthcare Provider
Contact a healthcare provider if you suspect you have a tapeworm infection or experience symptoms, especially if you notice something that looks like a white worm in your stool.
Tapeworm infection is usually diagnosed by examining stool, but larval conditions like cysticercosis often require an imaging test like a brain computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
One dose of an antiparasitic oral medication like Biltricide (praziquantel) can effectively treat most intestinal tapeworms, but infections in other areas of the body may require surgery.
Taking preventative measures can help you lower your risk of tapeworm infection:
Wash your hands thoroughly, especially before eating and after using the toilet.
Separate raw and cooked meat.
Do not consume raw meat.
Use a food thermometer to ensure food is cooked to an appropriate internal temperature. For example, cook meat to at least 140 degrees. Cook whole cuts of meat to 145°F (63°C) and ground meat to 160°F (71°C).
Drink clean water, and drink bottled water if you're unsure whether water is safe to drink.
Deworm dogs and cats as recommended.
A Quick Review
A tapeworm is a parasitic flatworm that feeds in the intestines. It spreads through contaminated food or water and can lead to symptoms like stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and fatigue. However, many people have mild gastrointestinal symptoms or no symptoms at all.
In rare cases, tapeworms can cause complications like cysticercosis, which occurs when pork larvae leave the intestine. Seek medical attention if you suspect a tapeworm infection or experience possibly related symptoms. A healthcare professional can diagnose the infection through testing and provide treatment.
Preventive measures like hygiene and cooking meat thoroughly can help reduce the risk of a tapeworm infection.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will tapeworm go away on its own?
Tapeworm infections in humans typically do not go away on their own without treatment. Properly diagnosing and treating the condition can help prevent complications. Treatment typically involves medication prescribed by a healthcare professional to kill the tapeworm, allowing it to be expelled from the body through bowel movements.
How long can you have a tapeworm without knowing?
The length of time someone can have a tapeworm without knowing varies depending on several factors, including the type of tapeworm, the number of worms present, and the person's immune response. A person may have no symptoms or only mild symptoms that they may not immediately associate with a tapeworm infection.
How do you get rid of tapeworm symptoms?
Medication is required to get rid of tapeworm symptoms. Tapeworms are treated with oral medicines (taken by mouth). The drug treatment of choice for tapeworm infections is usually praziquantel, taken in a single dose.
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