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Gut Parasite

Tapeworms are flat, segmented worms that can invade the digestive tracts of people and animals. They’re parasites, which means they need a host body in order to survive.

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Meat Is to Blame

Tapeworms get into your body when you eat raw or undercooked meat. Beef tapeworms are rare in the U.S., but they can get into the food supply when people live close to cattle and conditions aren’t clean. You’re more likely to get tapeworms from undercooked pork in the U.S.

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Larvae vs. Eggs

When tapeworm eggs get into your body, they can move to other places outside your intestines, like tissues and organs, and form larval cysts. This is called an invasive infection. If they enter your digestive tract as larvae, they turn into adult tapeworms in your intestines. This is called an intestinal infection.

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Long Body, Long Lifespan

Left untreated, adult tapeworms can live in a host body for up to 30 years. Their length varies, but they can grow to be anywhere from 6 to 22 feet.

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Symptoms

Most people feel no different than usual when they have a tapeworm in their intestines. Symptoms that could show up include nausea, appetite loss, weight loss, diarrhea, belly pain, dizziness, or salt cravings.

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Complications

The most serious symptoms happen when tapeworm larvae invade parts of your body outside the intestines. You may have serious problems with your nervous system, including seizures, or you could get headaches, masses or lumps, allergic reactions to the larvae, or problems with your vision.

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Pinpointing the Problem

A doctor can find out if you have a tapeworm by looking at a sample of your poop under a microscope. You may need a CT scan, MRI, or blood tests to check for invasive tapeworm larvae.

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Check When You Go

Your doctor may also ask if you’ve seen any parts of a tapeworm in your poop recently. Sometimes you can feel a piece of the worm move out when you go to the bathroom.

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Treating a Tapeworm Infection

Prescription antiparasitic medications will kill adult intestinal tapeworms. The doctor will likely want you to take these even if you’ve only seen a segment of tapeworm come out in your stool. If the head and neck are still inside, the tapeworm can regrow itself.

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Other Treatments

If you have cysts from larval tapeworms, your doctor may give you a steroid medication in addition to an antifungal. Surgery might be an option if a tapeworm cyst is blocking the flow of fluid around your brain or spinal cord, or affecting your eyes.

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Prevent the Problem

To  make sure you don’t get tapeworms, only eat meat cooked to safe temperatures:

  • 145 F for whole cuts of meat
  • 160 F for ground meat

In general, washing your hands often -- especially if you have to touch human poop -- is a good idea, too.

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Don’t Worry, They’re Rare

If the thought of tapeworms makes you squirm, take heart. You probably won’t ever get one. Less than 1,000 people in the U.S. get them a year. It’s extremely rare to pick one up from your pet. And if you take the right steps to cook meat, you shouldn’t get one from it, either.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 08/18/2019 Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on August 18, 2019

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

1)            PALMIHELP / Getty Images,  Biophoto Associates / Science Source

2)            Rawpixel / Getty Images

3)            Eye of Science / Science Source

4)            James H. Robinson / Science Source

5)            verdateo / Getty Images

6)            fizkes / Getty Images

7)            James King-Holmes / Science Source

8)            wutwhanfoto / Getty Images

9)            Tetra Images / Getty Images

10)          gorodenkoff / Getty Images

11)          Meghan Bennett / Getty Images

12)          Steve Gschmeissner / Science Source

 

SOURCES:

Merck Manual: “Tapeworm Infection.”
CDC: “Cysticercosis,” “Parasites -- Taeniasis,” “Taeniasis FAQs.”
Mayo Clinic: “Tapeworm Infection.”

Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on August 18, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.