12 Signs You Could Have a Tapeworm
Eating undercooked or raw meat could put you at risk of infection with tapeworms. Learn the signs that this icky parasite has taken up residence in your body.
Pain in the abdomen—often described as a sharp and shooting pain that extends for long periods of time—could signal that you have a parasitic infection. Your doctor can rule it out with a simple blood or stool test. He or she should also perform a physical exam. Learn about the parasite millions of Americans are exposed to.
Worms in your stool
One of the freakiest symptoms that can happen, as the tapeworm infection really takes hold, is the appearance of larvae in your stool. “Patients may notice bits or whole worms in their stool or sense the movement of them through the anus,” says Niket Sonpal MD, associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency at Brookdale Hospital Medical Center in Brooklyn and an assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. “Most of my patients will call the office and there will be panic. It is disturbing but does make the diagnosis much easier.”
Some people with tapeworm report developing unusual fatigue, which could be caused by loss of nutrients and the battle your body is waging against parasitic infection. Learn about the scary parasitic health threat you need to know about if you are visiting Florida.
If you have a tapeworm, you’re basically eating for two; tapeworms will siphon off some of your nutrients. So a test that reveals anemia or B12 deficiencies may be the first sign that you’re infected. “In the case of D. latum, it has an affinity for vitamin B12 and therefore competes with the person infected for absorption,” says Dr. Sonpal. “So in these patients, B12 deficiency and anemia can happen.”
Some species of tapeworm can travel outside of the digestive tract and end up wreaking havoc on other body systems—including the eyes and brain. “One of the most surprising symptoms is seizures if it invades the brain,” says Afonso Ribeiro, MD. Medical Director, Advanced Endoscopy and Gastroenterology, with Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, Florida. That complication is called neurocysticercosis, and can also present as headaches. This infection is caused by the pork tapeworm.
High white blood cell count
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A blood test could offer one of the most significant clues that it’s a parasite that’s to blame. “The one giveaway that makes me think ‘parasite’ is on blood tests, eosinophils may be elevated. These are white blood cells that attack parasites,” Dr. Sonpal says. “Combine that with a travel history and I am very suspicious.” Don’t miss these 15 signs your body’s in big trouble.
Craving dirt or salt
Strange but true—a tapeworm could have you craving something not-so-edible, like dirt. “Salt or dirt craving, also called pica, can be a sign but, again, there other more common conditions that can cause that,” says Dr. Ribeiro. See the craziest medical cases doctors have seen on the job.
Tapeworms can grow to hundreds of feet in length—and can deprive your body of nutrients as they grow. So if you’re losing weight without trying, it’s time to see the doctor. “Weight loss and change in bowel habits can be concerning,” says Donald Tsynman, MD, of NewYork-Presbyterian in the New York metropolitan region.
Nausea and loss of appetite
Not feeling particularly hungry? Tapeworms can cause you to feel ill and lose your appetite, due to irritation in your bowels, warns Dr. Tsynman. In some cases, parasites can even induce vomiting or diarrhea in patients. Here are 9 silent signs you’re not taking care of yourself.
Tapeworm larvae can escape into the liver and develop into cysts, says Dr. Sonpal. If the parasites continue to grow, they can reduce blood supply to the healthy parts of the liver and impair liver function overall. Learn the silent signs you could have a parasite.
As a tapeworm becomes larger and takes up more of the digestive system, it can end up leading to blockages in the digestive system, says Dr. Sonpal. For instance, it could block off the appendix or block bile and pancreatic ducts. If ducts become blocked, you could develop jaundice—a yellowing of the skin that’s due to a buildup of bilirubin in the blood—or pancreatitis. Intestinal blockage can also cause constipation while pancreatitis involves severe abdominal pain.
No symptoms at all
One of the scariest things about parasites like tapeworms is that you may have no symptoms at all. In other words. “The exact percentages of tapeworms that are asymptomatic are not fully known, but it is accepted that the majority of patients will be asymptomatic,” Dr. Sonpal says. “This is because while the parasite is growing and making its relationship over your intestines strong, it’s quiet.”
- Niket Sonpal, MD, associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency at Brookdale Hospital Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY.
- Afonso Ribeiro, MD, Medical Director, Advanced Endoscopy and Gastroenterology, with Memorial Healthcare System, Hollywood, FL.
- Donald Tsynman, MD, NewYork-Presbyterian in New York City.