Intestinal worms can cause many symptoms in the body, some of which are similar to the symptoms of other gut disorders. A quick and thorough diagnosis is crucial in each case to avoid complications.
Doctors may use antiparasitic medications or other treatments to help get rid of the worms. Although intestinal worms may seem scary, most people respond well to treatment.
In this article, we take a look at the different types of intestinal worm and the symptoms that they can cause. We also examine how people can get intestinal worms and what the treatment involves.
Each species of intestinal worm may cause different symptoms, and the symptoms may also vary from person to person.
However, some common signs and symptoms of intestinal worms include:
- loss of appetite
- abdominal pain
- weight loss
- an upset stomach
In some cases, the person may start passing segments of the intestinal worm in their stool.
In rarer cases, the intestinal worm may lead to severe blockages in the intestine, making it difficult for the person to have a bowel movement.
In rare cases, multiple tapeworms can occupy the intestines and block them.
Pinworms are sometimes visible in stool.
Types of worm and how they enter the body
There are many different types of intestinal worm that can affect people. Below, we look at some of them in more detail.
A tapeworm is a type of flatworm that lives in the intestine, where it attaches itself to the intestinal wall. Most people with tapeworms experience either no symptoms or very mild symptoms.
There are a few different types of tapeworm. Some tapeworms live in water, and drinking unclean water may allow them into the body. Other tapeworms live in meats, such as beef or pork, and ingesting unclean or raw meats may expose the person to them.
Tapeworms are flat and tend to be long, usually between 3 and 10 meters depending on the type of worm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are fewer than 1,000 new cases of tapeworms each year in the United States.
A hookworm is a worm that usually enters a person’s body through unsanitary soil. The name of the worm describes the way that one end of its body tapers off into a needle or hook shape.
The CDC state that, according to estimates, 576 to 740 million people in the world have a hookworm infection.
Hookworms take up space in the small intestine, where they lay eggs, which pass out of the body through the feces.
When the eggs hatch, the larvae can potentially enter through the skin of another person. People are at risk if they come into contact with the fecal matter or with soil containing contaminated feces as fertilizer.
Most people with a hookworm have no symptoms. Some people may show typical gastrointestinal symptoms, and this may be more common with first-time infections.
Doctors may order several different tests to help them diagnose intestinal worms. These tests may include:
- fecal tests to check for signs of infection
- blood tests to detect some types of parasite
- colonoscopy, which uses a thin camera to check the bowel for parasites
- imaging tests to check other organs for signs of damage from the parasite
- tape tests
A tape test involves placing a piece of tape over the anus as the person sleeps to check for signs of eggs.
Anyone who suspects that they have an intestinal worm should see a doctor.
Although intestinal worms sound a bit frightening, treatment is often straightforward. In some cases, the person may not need any treatment at all. A healthy immune system may be sufficient to manage some types of tapeworm without the need for medication.
In other cases, doctors will use one or more antiparasitic medications to get rid of the intestinal worm.
Doctors will sometimes choose to monitor the person first to see if their body can take care of the worm before moving on to medication. During this period, the individual should report any symptoms to the doctor.
Some signs and symptoms may indicate that further treatment is necessary. These may include:
- high fever that lasts for more than a couple of days
- extreme fatigue
- changes to the color of stool
- blood in the stool
Before commencing a person’s medical treatment, the doctor has to identify the specific type of intestinal worm. The type of worm will determine the best treatment option.
Doctors often prescribe praziquantel (Biltricide) to clear out a tapeworm. This drug paralyzes the worm, forcing it to detach from the intestinal wall. It then helps dissolve the worm so it can pass through the digestive system and leave the body during a bowel movement.
In the case of hookworms, doctors prescribe anthelmintic drugs, such as mebendazole or albendazole.
Triclabendazole may help treat flukes, while pinworm infections often respond well to both over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
While it may not be possible to get rid of all possible sources of intestinal worms, it is still essential to take certain steps to avoid them where possible.
One of the more important aspects of prevention is basic sanitation. For instance, people should always wash their hands both before and after using the toilet to avoid possible exposure. Washing the hands before cooking or handling food is also crucial.
Many intestinal worms enter the body through the food that a person eats. As a result, it is essential to follow some safe food practices:
- Thoroughly cook pork, beef, and other red meats to an internal temperature of 145°F.
- Always cook poultry, such as chicken and turkey, to an internal temperature of 165°F.
- Ensure that cooked fish reaches an internal temperature of 145°F.
- Never eat undercooked or raw meats.
- Use separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables.
- Thoroughly wash and peel all fruits and vegetables.
- Only use clean water.
When visiting a developing country or a place where sanitation is lacking, avoid swimming in sources of unclean water or walking barefoot in areas where contamination with fecal matter is possible.
Many intestinal worms are uncommon in the U.S., largely due to proper hygiene and cooking practices.
Some common worms, such as pinworms, do not pose much harm. In most cases, a thorough course of treatment can help clear up the issue.
However, anyone who suspects that their symptoms come from an intestinal worm should see a doctor as soon as possible for a diagnosis and treatment. Most people respond well to treatment.
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