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Tapeworm In Children: Types, Symptoms, Treatment, And Prevention

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Tapeworm infection or teniasis can be found in humans worldwide. The infection rate is high in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa (1). If you suspect your child has a tapeworm infection, seek medical help to treat it and practice strict hand hygiene at home.

Neurocysticercosis, a disease caused by tapeworm eggs, is a common cause of epilepsy and accounts for approximately 30% of seizure cases in endemic areas (2).

Read this MomJunction post to know more about the causes, types, signs, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of taeniasis or tapeworm infection in kids.

What Is A Tapeworm And How Does It Grow?

Tapeworms are parasitic intestinal worms that look like a tape. These are flatworms that live in the intestines of humans or animals and are not capable of surviving outside the host.

Tapeworms can live for several years and grow more than 30 meters long. They grow by feeding on the nutrition from the hosts, thus causing nutritional deficiencies.

Kids can get tapeworm infection from food or water contaminated with a worm or its eggs. The parasite attaches its head to the intestine and feeds on blood that contains digested nutrients.

These worms appear as segments, and each part can reproduce eggs. Usually, the worms grow in segments. As the worms grow, the lower segments  break off and appear in feces.

The feces of infected people can have segments or eggs of tapeworms, which could contaminate food and water. These could stay in the soil or water for months and transmit to humans or animals (3).

Types Of Tapeworms

The species of tapeworms that cause infection in humans are (4):

  • Taenia solium (pork tapeworm)
  • Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm)
  • Taenia asiatica (Asian tapeworm)
  • Hymenolepis nana (dwarf tapeworm)
  • Diphyllobothrium latum (fish tapeworm)
  • Echinococcus

In rural areas, canines can have different species of tapeworms.

 [Read: Deworming Children Naturally]

How Do Tapeworms Infect Kids?

Kids may get an infection from the following ways:

  • Consuming food or water contaminated with infected feces
  • From an infected person, if they do not wash hands after using the toilet
  • From contaminated doorknobs
  • Eating undercooked or uncooked fish or meat if the animal had the infection
  • Eating without washing the hands after playing in contaminated soil or water

Signs And Symptoms Of Tapeworms In Children

Most kids with tapeworms can be asymptomatic for months and years. However, some may develop signs and symptoms of tapeworm infection. Some of them are (5):

  1. Abdominal pain
  2. Diarrhea
  3. Nausea
  4. Loss of appetite
  5. Weight loss
  6. Worms in feces or around the anus
  7. Fish tapeworms, which feed on nutrition in the intestine, could cause vitamin B12 deficiency and, subsequently, pernicious anemia (6).
  8. Cysts under the skin caused by pork tapeworms

[Read: Nausea In Children]

Complications

Complications due to  tapeworm infection may include (7):

  • Cysticercosis: Eggs of Tenia solium (pork tapeworm) can reach the bloodstream from the intestines. These can move to other parts of the body and form cysts in muscles, brain, eyes, or other organs. Cysticercosis is prevalent in developing countries with poor sanitation and hygiene practices.

Cysts may cause symptoms depending on its location, including (7):

  • Muscles: Lumps under the skin
  • Heart: Abnormal heartbeats
  • Brain: Seizures, confusion, vision problems, headaches, meningitis, hydrocephalus, stroke
  • Spine: Weakness and difficulty in walking
  • Cysts may cause anaphylaxis (allergic reaction) if they are broken or damaged.

Other possible complications of tapeworm infections are (8):

  • Pancreatitis
  • Cholecystitis
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Pernicious anemia

Brain infection caused by pork tapeworm eggs is known as neurocysticercosis. This can be fatal if left untreated. Echinococcus tapeworm causes hydatid disease (echinococcosis), which most commonly affects the liver. A large hydatid cyst could damage the liver and exert pressure on nearby blood vessels.

Note: You may not get cysticercosis from eating pork since the eggs are not found in meat. It generally happens due to the consumption of food or water contaminated with feces.

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When To See The Doctor

Although tapeworm infections are not a cause of concern in most cases, you may see a pediatrician if your child shows signs and symptoms of taeniasis.

Diagnosis Of Tapeworms In Children

The following are used to diagnose tapeworm infection (9):

  • Stool sample analysis to check for eggs and worm segments (proglottids)
  • CT or MRI scan for cysts
  • Blood tests to identify antibodies
  • Ultrasound of the liver

The doctor may also ask for samples after the treatment to ensure that the stool is free of eggs and segments.

[Read: Indigestion In Children]

Treatment For Intestinal Tapeworm In Children

The treatment with antihelminthic agents could kill or paralyze the worms. Some of the effective drugs include (10):

  • Biltricide (Praziquantel)
  • Albenza (Albendazole)
  • Alinia (Nitazoxanide)

These drugs are effective against adult worms and not the eggs, so you may teach your child to wash their hands before food and after using the toilet to prevent reinfection. Over-the-counter treatments may not be effective since the medications may vary depending on the type of the worm causing the infection.

Extraintestinal invasive infections may need other treatments in addition to antihelminthic therapy. The doctor may administer the following medications depending on the site and complications of the infections (11) (12):

  • Albendazole (Albenza) (antihelminthic medication) helps reduce the size of cysts. Ultrasound or radiographic imaging is done to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment.
  • Niclosamide blocks glucose intake and could damage the metabolism in the tapeworm.
  • Prescription corticosteroid medications such as prednisone and dexamethasone may help to decrease inflammation of the tissue.
  • Anti-epileptics or anticonvulsants are given if neurocysticercosis causes seizures.
  • Hydrocephalus (excess fluid in the brain) caused by tapeworms may require shunting of fluid from the head using tubes to avoid fatal complications such as brain herniation.
  • Cystectomy is done to remove cysts from the organs via a surgical procedure, and the cavity is washed with anti-parasitic solutions to prevent reinfection.

It is important to follow the recommended treatment regime to avoid complications of the disease. Untreated infections may increase the risk of intestinal obstruction, appendicitis, pancreatic duct obstruction, or cysticercosis.

[Read: Loss Of Appetite In Children]

How To Prevent Tapeworms In Children?

The following tips may help to prevent tapeworms in kids (13):

  • Wash hands with soap and water before eating and after using toilets
  • Cook meat until the center of the meat is no longer pink
  • Freeze meat for 24 hours before cooking
  • Do not consume undercooked or uncooked fish or meat
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before consuming them
  • Ensure you buy good-grade meat from trusted shops or brands to reduce the risk of infection. Avoid buying pork or beef from areas that lack strict regulations and farming practices.
  • Pet dogs can also get infected with tapeworm; deworm your dogs as recommended by the vet to help reduce the risk of getting hydatid disease caused by dog tapeworms.

The following tips can be helpful if you are traveling to endemic areas:

  • Drink boiled water and wipe the caps of a bottle or use a straw.
  • Avoid fountain drinks and ice cubes.
  • Do not consume fruits and vegetables peeled by others or street vendors.

Although a few people try anecdotal home remedies, such as consuming papaya seeds, garlic, pumpkin seeds, carrots, and berries, the effectiveness of these remedies to cure or prevent worm infection is not well studied on randomized control trials.

Teaching good hygiene practices to your child can reduce their risk of developing parasitic intestinal infections. You may encourage them and remind them to wash their hands before eating, after playing in soil, or after using the lavatory.

Do you have an experience to share? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

References:

1. Parasites – Taeniasis; Epidemiology & Risk Factors; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
2. Awa Ba-Diop, et al.; Epidemiology, causes, and treatment of epilepsy in sub-Saharan Africa; The Lancet Neurology (2017).
3. Digestive System – Tapeworm; Rady Childrens Hospital San Diego
4. Taeniasis/cysticercosis; transmission and burden; The World Health Organization
5. Taeniasis FAQs; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
6. Fish tapeworm infection; United States National Library of Medicine
7. Parasites-Cysticercosis; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
8. Ellen J. Lesh and Mark F. Brady; Tapeworm (Taenia Solium, Taenia Saginata, Diphyllobothrium, Cysticercosis, Neurocysticercosis); StatPearls Publishing (2020).
9. Taeniasis and Cysticercosis; Investigative Guidelines; PUBLIC HEALTH DIVISION;  Acute and Communicable Disease Prevention
10. Ann E. Lloyd, et al.; Treatment Options and Considerations for Intestinal Helminthic Infections; Journal of Pharmacy Technology (2014).
11. Hector H. García, et al.; Current Consensus Guidelines for Treatment of Neurocysticercosis; Clinical Microbiology Reviews (2002).
12. Parasites-Cysticercosis; Resources for Health Professionals; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
13. Tapeworm; healthdirect; Australian Government Department of Health

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