Tapeworm infections aren't common in the United States and, when they do happen, they're usually easy to treat.
Tapeworms are parasites. As you probably remember from biology class, parasites are organisms that live in, or on, other organisms (called "hosts"). Parasites take their nutrients from the host, sometimes depriving the host of nutrition.
Tapeworms get into the body when someone eats or drinks something that's infected with a worm or its eggs. Once inside the body, the tapeworm head attaches to the inner wall of the intestines. The tapeworm feeds off the food that the host is digesting. It uses this nutrition to grow.
Tapeworms are made up of segments, and they get longer by growing new segments. Each segment can reproduce by making thousands of eggs. Since tapeworms can have more than a thousand segments, that's a lot of opportunity to spread. They can grow to more than 33 feet (10 meters) and live as long as 25 years.
New segments grow at the head of the tapeworm, pushing older segments to the end of the line, where they break off. These segments, along with the eggs they contain, pass out of the digestive tract in the host's feces (poop). If the infected feces aren't disposed of in a sanitary way — like down a flush toilet — they can get into the soil or water.
Tapeworm segments can live for months in the environment, waiting for a host to come along. Animals like cows or pigs that eat grass or nose around in the soil can pick up tapeworm segments or eggs. When the tapeworm reaches the animal's intestine, the attach-and-grow cycle begins again.
Most of the time, people get tapeworm infections from eating food that's contaminated and not prepared properly:
- Tapeworms can spread when someone eats or drinks food or water that's contaminated with infected feces. This is one reason why tapeworm infections are rare in places that have good sanitation, like the United States. Flush toilets, sewer systems, and water treatment plants help keep feces out of the water and food supply.
- People can pass tapeworm eggs on to others when they don't wash their hands after using the bathroom. Tapeworm eggs in feces can easily spread into food or onto surfaces like doorknobs. If you ever need another reason to get your kids to wash their hands, this might do it!
- Kids can get tapeworms from eating meat or fish that hasn't been cooked enough to kill the tapeworm or its eggs.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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