A tapeworm is a parasitic worm that can live in the gut, and may get into the body when someone eats food that contains its eggs. It often does not produce symptoms and feeds on the food that its host consumes.
- Can cause weight loss, abdominal pain and diarrhoea
- Many cases are symptomless
- Treatment is a single-dose tablet
To speak to a doctor online about a potential tapeworm infection, our video consultation service provides the means to do so quickly and conveniently. Click below to book an appointment.
What is a tapeworm?
A tapeworm infection is the presence of a parasitic worm in the gut. They have become rare in the UK but are still common in developing countries. The most prevalent route of infection is via uncooked or raw meat, that contains eggs or larvae.
Tapeworms can vary in length, from a few millimeters to 25 metres. In total, a tapeworm can live for up to 30 years. Their bodies consist of a head, neck and a chain of segments called proglottids. They also have the ability to change the shape of their heads in order to attach themselves to a host. When a tapeworm lives in the human gut, the proglottids produce eggs.
What can a tapeworm infection cause?
It’s rare, but possible, for newly hatched worms to cause cysts; this only occurs if you ingest a type of tapeworm present in pigs, but you can’t get it from eating pork.
Tapeworms living in humans can also cause an intestinal infection from the larvae attaching themselves to tissue in the gut.
Tapeworms are prevalent throughout the world, and infection usually occurs in countries where diets may include raw and undercooked meat. Tapeworms caused by T Solum led to 18,584 people being admitted to hospital between 2003-2012 in the US.
The most prominent risk factors for getting a tapeworm infection are poor personal hygiene and eating undercooked meat. They’ve been largely eradicated in the UK, but you are more at risk of getting a tapeworm infection in a developing country, or a country where tapeworms are endemic. Incidences of tapeworm are more common in Latin America, South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
What complications can a tapeworm infection lead to?
Complications from the presence of a tapeworm in the intestine are uncommon. However, they are possible if a tapeworm happens to migrate from the intestine. If they grow to a large enough size, they can cause a digestive blockage and irritate the appendix, leading to appendicitis.
Neurocysticercosis is an infection of the central nervous system, which can result from the cysts produced by the tapeworm from raw pork, Tanea Solium. It can lead to severe headaches and visual impairment, and is a common cause of seizures around the world.
How can a tapeworm infection be prevented?
The only preventative measures for tapeworms are cooking meat thoroughly to ensure that all tapeworm eggs and larvae are killed, avoiding contact with animal or human faeces, and maintaining good hygiene by washing produce and hands when visiting a country with a high risk of tapeworm infection.
People who are experiencing gut symptoms or are otherwise concerned can speak to our doctors online. Our video service enables you to consult with a doctor about tapeworms, or other health issues, at a time that suits you. Book an appointment below to get started.
What are the causes of a tapeworm?
There are four main types of tapeworm that are known to infect humans:
- Taenia. When undercooked beef or pork is consumed, having been infected with T solum.
- Echinococcus granulosus. From contact with infected dog faeces.
- E multilocularis. From the faeces of foxes and cats.
- Diphyllobothrium latum. When undercooked freshwater fish that contain larvae are consumed.
How is a tapeworm diagnosed?
In many cases, infections from tapeworms are asymptomatic. When they do cause symptoms, these can include abdominal pain, weight loss, diarrhoea and even the feeling of something moving inside the gut.
An examination of a stool sample is the definitive way to diagnose a tapeworm. A doctor can look for pieces of the worm and also send a sample to a laboratory for testing.
Will I need tests?
In addition to a stool test, if the tapeworm has caused an intestinal infection, a doctor may wish to take a blood test to see if any antibodies have been produced in response to the tapeworm.
In rare cases, a doctor may also recommend a CT or MRI scan to look for signs of an infection.
How is a tapeworm treated?
If a tapeworm has simply caused an intestinal infection that has not spread, a drug called praziquantel, which is an anthelmintic, can be used. It can be provided for any species of tapeworm infection and is very effective. It works by paralysing the parasite, so it can no longer attach itself to the gut.
If a tapeworm has caused an invasive infection outside of the intestine, there are a variety of treatments available. If a tapeworm has led to the formation of cysts, anthelmintic drugs can be used to shrink the cysts.
How is a tapeworm treated?
An uncomplicated tapeworm infection can be treated easily with one dose of a drug called praziquantel. If the cysts cause infection elsewhere in the body, anthelmintic drugs may be necessary in order to shrink the cysts.
How long will it take for me to recover?
Treatment for a tapeworm infection is very effective, and will completely eliminate their presence in the gut. How long it takes to get rid of a tapeworm largely depends on the size of the tapeworm. A doctor may recommend having a stool sample after a month following treatment, to make sure that the tapeworm has gone.
Can I consult a doctor about a tapeworm online?
A tapeworm will often not produce any symptoms, which means you may not feel the need to contact a doctor. However, if you notice something in your stools which resembles a tapeworm and you are concerned about it, you can use our online video consultation service to get medical advice. This enables you to speak to a doctor about any symptoms you have, and whether you need to provide a stool sample.