By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

I think most of us have heard or read about the horrific looking creatures that purportedly live in our guts, and may unexpectedly end up staring up at us from the toilet bowl some day. A lot of this is hype, but it is based on the fact that literally all of us have parasites living within us, to one degree or another. One of the most common types of parasites is the tapeworm. Let’s find out what we can about this trespasser, and learn how we can evict him and keep him out.

What Are Tapeworm Infections?

Tapeworms are a family of parasitic worms that live in the intestinal tracts of certain animals. There are several different species found in meat and fish that can cause infections in humans due to eating raw or undercooked food or drinking water that contains the immature form of these worms. When we ingest them, they then grow to maturity in our intestines. Tapeworm infections may cause few to no symptoms, and most of us will never know we have them. However, they can result in diarrhea, nausea, or stomachaches, and occasionally lead to more serious complications such as central nervous system, lung, or liver disorders.

Tapeworm infestations that have stayed in your intestinal tract are more easily treated via natural parasitic cleansers and medications (watch out for the side effects—more on that later). But when they have migrated to other parts of the body, the risks for complications and permanent organ damage are increased. Severe, untreated cases can be life threatening. Certain precautions and lifestyle choices can greatly reduce the risk for such parasites. These include eliminating beef and pork from your diet, washing your hands carefully before eating, and taking special precautions when traveling in certain parts of the world. The threat of tapeworm infections is greater in some Third World countries where sanitation is poor and the feces of both humans and livestock are not properly disposed of. People of all ages, both males and females, are susceptible to tapeworms. It is rare in very young children who are not old enough to eat meat or fish, and is found much less often in vegetarians.

What Causes Tapeworm Infections?

Tapeworm is less common in industrialized nations such as the United States and Western Europe, but is a major public health concern in countries where a lot of cattle and pigs are raised and sanitation practices are poor. Tapeworms are also being spread worldwide, including here in the West, as immigration from these countries increases. Other areas where there is a higher incidence of tapeworms include nations where the people habitually eat raw or undercooked fish, pork, or beef. The environment in which these individuals live is much more prone to support tapeworms, both in food sources and in the water they and their livestock drink. This makes for a vicious cycle that perpetuates tapeworm infestations.

Most people are exposed to one of five types of tapeworms: Taenia solium (pork tapeworm), Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm), Hymenolepis nana (dwarf tapeworm), Diphyllobothrium4 latum (fish tapeworm), and Hymenolepis dimintua (rodent tapeworm).

Often the source of contamination is poorly treated human sewage that infects livestock’s drinking water, or sewage water that is used to irrigate pasture lands that pigs or cattle graze on. The animals then become infected with tapeworm eggs that are in the human feces. As the eggs grow into pea-sized larvae, the larvae then become embedded in the tissues of cattle and swine, often times in the muscles. When people eat beef or pork that is raw or undercooked, the larvae are transferred into their intestines, where they may live for up to twenty years and possibly grow to be fifty-foot adult worms! Think about that the next time you have bacon for breakfast or order a rare steak.

The fish tapeworm infects freshwater fish that are exposed to tapeworm eggs through living in polluted waters that are compromised by improperly treated human sewage. If these fish are consumed raw or undercooked, those who eat them can become infected by tapeworms in the same manner as with pork and beef. I would recommend staying away from the sushi the next time you visit your favorite Japanese restaurant.

How Do I Know if I Have a Tapeworm Infection?

The best way to monitor yourself for possible tapeworms is to keep an eye on the condition of your stools. As unpleasant as this may sound, observing what is coming out of your body through your waste matter is a very good indicator of many disease conditions, including parasites such as tapeworms and others. Tapeworm evidence may appear in the form of eggs, larvae, or small segments of adult worms called proglottids. Many of these will look identical from species to species with the naked eye. However, if you see any signs of tapeworms in your stool, it is a good idea to save a sample and have it analyzed in a laboratory that can identify which species it is. This knowledge can help you when choosing treatment options.  Beef tapeworms tend to be a bit larger than the rest, and some patients have reported a noticeable sensation while segments are being passed.

The Taenia tapeworms (beef and pork) tend to attach themselves “silently” to your intestinal walls, so that you may not even have any symptoms to warn you. As the infestation begins to grow, some folks may experience symptoms such as:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain

These signs are so common to many gastrointestinal disorders, that many individuals will miss them as indicative of tapeworms. That’s why it is important to be aware of the condition of your stools.

Most fish tapeworm infections do not exhibit any symptoms either. It does relatively little damage to the lining of the intestines, as compared to some other tapeworm species. One possible complication that is unique to the fish tapeworm is that it likes to gobble up more than its fair share of Vitamin B12 in your gut, and can lead to B12 deficiency. A lack of B12 leads to a form of anemia called pernicious anemia. Untreated, pernicious anemia can lead to many serious side effects, including rapid heartbeat, fatigue, bleeding gums, and even stomach cancer.

The dwarf tapeworm is, as the name indicates, one of the smaller forms of tapeworm. It is somewhat famous for being the only tapeworm that is commonly passed directly from person to person. This usually occurs when a person ingests the feces of an infected individual. Most often this happens in the case of children, the mentally ill, or psychiatric patients. However, the dwarf tapeworm, and all the other species, can also be passed on by food workers who have not washed their hands properly before handling the food. Symptoms for this species are generally mild, but may include generalized abdominal pain, and diarrhea or loose stools.

The rodent tapeworm is commonly found in the intestinal tracts of rats, mice, and other small rodents. Most humans become infected after accidentally ingesting insects that contain the rodent tapeworm larvae. The way this happens most of the time is through eating flour, dried fruit, or cereal that is infested with infected meal worms or grain beetles. Most people with rodent tapeworms are asymptomatic, but some folks may experience headaches, nausea, and diarrhea.

What Complications from Tapeworm Infections can Occur?

There are some significant and dangerous complications that can result from tapeworm infections if they are not dealt with. A lot of the possibilities depend on which tapeworm you are infected with. The beef tapeworm is considered the least dangerous, as it usually does not migrate out of the intestine. However, I would not want a 20 footer lying around in my gut regardless. It is hard enough to get adequate nutrition these days without competing with a snake!

Complications begin to get more serious when the tapeworms begin to multiply and grow outside of your intestinal tract. This is referred to as cysticercosis, and it can be very damaging to tissues and organs in your body. The larvae can accumulate and grow into cysts or lesions that over time, often many months or years, can become disruptive to normal organ functions. The lungs are often the site of these cysts. Rarely, these cysts or lesions may even develop a secondary infection, swell, and burst. This can release large amounts of poisonous toxins into your system, similar to a ruptured appendix, and can be very dangerous.

One form of cysticercosis that is particularly hazardous is called neurocysticercosis. This is an infestation by tapeworm larvae into the central nervous system. This can result in dire consequences including headaches, vision disturbances, seizures, meningitis, dementia, and even death in rare circumstances.

One other species, which we haven’t mentioned yet, is called the echinococcus tapeworm, and it may be present in a variety of hosts, but is most commonly found in the intestines of sheep and dogs. This worm has a tendency to migrate easily to other organs once it has been introduced into a person’s gut. The liver is a common target, and cysts may develop that can cause liver damage and put pressure on nearby blood vessels, resulting in potential internal bleeding. In severe cases, a liver transplant may be required.

How Can Tapeworm Infections be Treated or Prevented?

Mainstream medical, to no surprise, recommends medications for knocking out tapeworms from your system. Some of these may be justified as a last resort for folks who have advanced infections that have migrated beyond the intestinal tract and are affecting other organs. However, they can have significant side effects that would be better avoided. Some doctors will also recommend the use of imaging technologies to identify the location of severe infestations. Again, sometimes this may be a wise choice, but it is best to get a second opinion. CT scans are often ordered, but you should be aware that these expose you to high amounts of radiation, much more than a traditional x-ray. Be especially careful if you are pregnant.

The best course of action to both treat and prevent tapeworm infections is to use a high quality, oxygen-based colon cleanse, and then to follow it up with a natural parasite cleanse. These products usually involve an initial phase of deep cleansing, followed by ongoing usage to prevent reinfection.

Changing your diet will be a great help as well. I would eliminate pork altogether, and make sure that if you do choose to eat beef or fish, that they are thoroughly cooked. Hygiene is important too. Make sure you wash your hands before eating, especially after using the bathroom, and be careful where and what you eat when you dine out.

Here’s a tip: Some studies have shown that mangoes will help to protect you from tapeworm infections. Eat lots of mangoes, especially if you are traveling or living in an underdeveloped land where tapeworm infections are common.

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