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Tapeworms: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment Options

article written by Rita Putatunda

According to parasitologists, the wrong episode of history has been blamed all along for contributing towards tapeworm infection in humans. For several decades, the assumption by most scientists has been that the human tapeworm was picked up by our species when they domesticated pigs and cattle, about 10,000 years back.

However, new scientific investigations of the family tree of the tapeworm reveal that the association between humans and tapeworms goes much further back in time. The researchers say that the nearest relatives of the human tapeworm spend their early part of their lives in grazing animals and the latter part of their lives, when they reach adulthood, in various African carnivores.

Hence, according to the researchers, the ancestors of the human species first got infected by tapeworms when they began consuming more of the worm-infested meat as hyenas and big cats did. They go on further to say that these studies are the first to connect human tapeworm infestations with increased scavenging of meat and hunting by human beings.

In fact, scientists have found enough genetic proof to make an estimation of precisely when the Taenia asiatica and Taenia saginata bifurcated from a common ancestor. From that evidence they deduce that the human species and the tapeworm association goes as far as 1.7 million years to 170,000 years back, long before livestock was domesticated by humans.

Physical Characteristics & Types of Tapeworms

Coming to today, intestinal parasite infection by human tapeworms is becoming more common in the US. Tapeworms are a type of intestinal parasites that need a host, e.g. humans, to be able to continue their life cycle. Tapeworms belong to a family of parasites known as Cestoda. There are several varieties of human tapeworms such as: Taenia solium, Taenia saginata, Diphyllobothrium latum, Echinococcus granulosus, and the dwarf tapeworm, Hymenolepsis nana.

The Taenia saginata, also known as the beef tapeworm, is the most common type of tapeworm in North America; the Taenia solium, or the pork tapeworm, infects millions in Latin America; and the Diphyllobothrium latum, or the fish tapeworm, along with the pork tapeworm, are the types that are prevalent in Asia.

These human parasites occur in various sizes ranging from 6 inches to up to 26 feet long. Occurring as ribbon-like and flat creatures, their body is divided into three parts: the head, the neck, and segments of the body known as proglottids.

The head of the tapeworm contains hooks with which it attaches itself to the walls of the intestines. This harmful organism can survive and form a new tapeworm as long as the head stays attached to the mucosa of the intestinal wall. The proglottids have eggs, which can detach themselves and travel through the body.

Devoid of intestinal tracts, tapeworms absorb partly digested food through their skin from their host. Adult tapeworms infest the digestive tracts of a wide range of hosts like fish, cats, dogs, cows, pigs, and of course humans. Most types of tapeworms have both female and male reproductive organs, and hence can produce and fertilize their own eggs.

Life Cycle & the Spread of Tapeworms

Once reproduction occurs, the eggs develop swiftly into adventuresome embryos. They exit from the digestive system of the host via bowel movements and quickly seek the closest supply of water. Both humans and animals ingest newborn tapeworms regularly.

The embryos of the tapeworm are ingested either by direct contact with infected feces, or by drinking contaminated water, or by eating the flesh of animals infected with tapeworm. For humans who have tapeworm infection, the parasite is the most dangerous when it is at the embryo stage, because an insidious infection called cysticercosis can develop.

According to estimates, about 50 million people in the world are affected by cycticercosis, with it going unnoticed by most. The cysts that form are usually only revealed on an autopsy being performed. In a small number of cases, the central nervous system is infected by tapeworms, causing neurocysticercosis, a potentially deadly condition.

Once the undeveloped tapeworm infects a host, it does not develop into a fully grown tapeworm. It drills through the abdominal lining of the host and gets into the blood stream. Arteries and veins become its highways through which the tapeworm travels to all the major muscles and organs.

Once the undeveloped tapeworm finds a home, e.g. the liver or any large muscle, it forms a fluid sac, called a cyst, into which it encloses itself. The embryo does not leave this sac until the flesh is eaten by some other animal. In fact, this is one the main ways people get infected by tapeworms.

Human Tapeworm Symptoms and Diagnosis

If you have a tapeworm or some other stomach parasite, chances are that you won’t even be aware of it. Even if you do experience the symptoms of parasites, they will hardly be noticeable, and will most probably be misdiagnosed, being attributed to common ailments like upset stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, or even stress. As a matter of fact, most people only notice they have tapeworm when they see the bodies of the headless worm in their stool.

When you read through this list of tapeworm symptoms, it will become clear why the symptoms of tapeworm infestation are misdiagnosed so often. Hence, you will have to be your best advocate for correct diagnosis as well as treatment. Some of the signs of human tapeworm infection are: constipation, diarrhea, discomfort in the abdomen, and/or segments of tapeworm in the feces or clothes.

If you or your doctor suspect that you have tapeworm symptoms, an antibody test will be able to diagnose the infection. If there are neurological symptoms, an MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, can be used to locate the cysts. Tapeworm infection is usually easy to treat in most people. Although some infections may last a long time, depending on the organ that is affected.

Treatment of Human Tapeworm Infection

There are various western and naturopathic medical treatments available that can get rid of tapeworms from the intestines. For example, various herbal combinations formulated in a parasite cleanse or following a colon cleansing program are often quite effective methods. Treatment via conventional drugs includes niclosamide or quinacrine hydrochloride. It requires two drugs, albendazole and prazinquantel, to treat the embryo of the tapeworm. These drugs usually have many side effects, hence must be taken under medical supervision.

Prevention of Intestinal Parasite Infection by Tapeworms

There are many ways of avoiding getting a tapeworm infection.

  • It is advisable to avoid eating rare meat. Tapeworms are killed effectively by the intense heat of cooking.
  • After using the washroom, ALWAYS wash your hands with soap and water. Not only will this help kill of parasitic eggs, but is a great way to avoid getting sick.
  • Avoid drinking water from any source where there are chances of it being contaminated with these worms.

If you are careful about employing these simple and basic rules, you will not be among those millions who have to deal with the unpleasant symptoms associated with tapeworms.

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