Overview of Intestinal Worms
Millions of people worldwide are affected by intestinal worms. Intestinal worms are parasites that use humans and other animals as their hosts. They enter the body when a person eats undercooked meat, drinks contaminated water, or comes into contact with soil that contains worm eggs. Once inside the body, the eggs move to the intestine and mature into adult worms. The symptoms caused by intestinal worms vary widely, depending on the type of worm and the severity and length of infestation.
Children can be especially susceptible to infestation by intestinal worms, because they are more likely to play in sandboxes or to play barefoot in soil that may contain worm eggs.
Types of Intestinal Worms
The most well-known intestinal worms found in humans are roundworms, pinworms, hookworms, and tapeworms.
Roundworms (also called nematodes) are long, threadlike worms. Like many parasites, they are usually found in places with a tropical climate and a dense population. They are very common – the World Health Organization estimates that 25% of the world’s population is infested with roundworms. Once the eggs enter the body, roundworm larvae not only settle in the intestines, they also travel through the liver, lungs and other organs.
There are several types of roundworms, including whipworms, threadworms, and Trichinella spiralis. Trichinella spiralis causes trichinosis, and enters the body when a person eats contaminated pork which has not been thoroughly cooked.
Roundworms can cause a variety of symptoms. Often, they cause no symptoms and go undetected. In some cases, though, roundworms can cause serious complications, including liver disease, pneumonia, and bowel obstruction. In the case of trichinosis, the worms move into the muscles and organs where they form cysts and cause abdominal pain, muscle and joint pain, and skin rash and eye swelling.
Pinworm infestations are the most common type of intestinal worm infestation in America, with over 40 million estimated cases each year. Pinworms are actually a type of roundworm. They are yellow-white, threadlike worms and are large enough to be seen with the naked eye, although they usually do not grow longer than ½ inch. Pinworms usually infect children between the ages of 5 and 10, with the female worm laying her eggs near the anus, causing intense itching.
When the child scratches, the eggs are caught under the fingernails and passed on to anyone or anything the child touches. The eggs can be passed directly to other people or they can settle on household items or clothing, infect those items, and then pass to people who handle those items. The eggs enter the body of the next person by being accidentally ingested.
Once the eggs are ingested, they travel into the intestines, hatch, and grow into adult worms. The adult female worm then travels from the intestine to the anus, usually at night, to lay eggs, and the cycle continues.
Like the pinworm, the hookworm is actually a type of roundworm. Hookworm infestation is caused when a hookworm larvae enters the human body through the skin, usually when a person is walking barefoot on contaminated soil. These worms are found only in warm, humid environments and cannot survive outside of the tropic or the subtropics. Adult hookworms live in the small intestine, where they attach themselves to the intestinal lining and feed off of the blood supply there. Although it is estimated that up to 70% of those who are infested with hookworms have no symptoms, those people who experience infestation by a large number of worms over a long period of time can suffer from anemia and malnutrition.
The tapeworm is a flat worm and has a head, neck, and multiple segments (called proglottids). Tapeworm eggs and larvae can be ingested by drinking contaminated water or by eating undercooked, contaminated meat. When this happens, the tapeworm travels to the intestine, attaches itself by its head to the intestinal wall, and feeds off the food supply of its host. As it feeds, it grows, adding segments, which produce eggs. A tapeworm can survive in the human body for up to 20 years and can grow to be quite long. Tapeworm infestations are usually mild, but can cause intestinal discomfort, weight loss, and inadequate nutritional absorption.
Animals or humans infested with intestinal worms pass worm eggs in their feces. The feces can then contaminate water or soil and, after several days or weeks, the eggs develop into cysts or larvae that are at an infective stage. People ingest the worm cysts or larvae when they eat with soil-contaminated hands, when they drink contaminated water, or when they eat vegetables or fruits that have been in contaminated soil and have not been washed.
Another common way for intestinal worms to spread to humans is for people to eat the undercooked meat of animals that have been infested with the parasites. Common sources of intestinal worms are pork, freshwater fish, and wild game.
Somewhat less-common sources of infestation include ingesting fleas that have ingested the eggs of intestinal worms, and the penetration of worms directly through the skin while walking on contaminated soil or swimming in contaminated water. Children may contract intestinal worms while playing in soil or sandboxes contaminated with pet feces.
Symptoms of intestinal worms can vary widely, from none at all to the most extreme and severe. Below is a general list of what to watch out for. If you suspect you might have an intestinal worm, consult your doctor.
- Stomach pain Although it does not always happen, the presence of an intestinal parasite can cause discomfort
- Gas, bloating, foul smelling breath Certain worms live in the upper intestine, causing gas, bloating, and foul breath
- Diarrhea or Vomiting These are ways for your body to expel irritants, which can include worms, from your digestive tract
- Weight loss This can be a symptom of tapeworms
- Anal itching Intense itching may be a symptom of pinworms
- Weakness, fatigue or anemia When worms are present in the body in significant numbers, they can rob you of nutrients, causing feelings of weakness, or in severe cases, causing an iron deficiency.
- Constipation Worms can interfere with your digestive system and cause blockages, resulting in constipation.
- Distended Belly Again, a possible sign of bowel obstruction
- Evidence of Worms, or Worm Eggs, in the Stool
- Evidence of Entry through Skin Usually a swollen or itchy area on the foot
- Visual Evidence of Worms Some worms leave the body through the nose, mouth or anus; usually at night
If you suspect that you may have intestinal worms, see your doctor. Diagnosis of intestinal worms is usually quite simple and can be done through a stool sample or, in some cases, a blood test. In the case of pinworms, you may be able to see the worms by looking at your child’s anal area a few hours after bedtime. Alternatively, your doctor may want to do an adhesive tape test. He or she will ask you to collect an egg sample to by patting a piece of transparent tape, sticky side down, on your child’s anal skin to pick up eggs. This is done first thing in the morning, because the eggs are generally laid at night. Once you collect the sample, the doctor can look at the tape under a microscope to verify the presence of the eggs.
A variety of effective treatment options exist for getting rid of intestinal worms, including conventional prescription drug treatments and and alternative therapies. While the prescription drugs are highly effective and generally very quick and simple, some people choose to couple them with alternative treatments. Both options are discussed below.
Intestinal worms are often treated using a class of prescription drugs called anthelminthics. Anthelminthics are drugs designed specifically to expel parasites from the body by stunning or killing them. Your doctor will prescribe the appropriate medication for you based on the type of worm with which you are infested.
- Albendazole or Mebendazole are often used to treat all types of roundworms, including hookworms.
- Pinworms can be treated with Mebednazole, in two doses, given two weeks apart. The over-the-counter medication Pin-X (pyrantel pamoate) can also be used to treat pinworms, after consulting with your doctor.
- The most commonly used medicine for treating tapeworms is the oral drug praziquantel. It is important to note that this drug only kills the adult tapeworm, but does not target the eggs, so you should be careful to avoid becoming reinfested.
In addition to, or as a substitute for medical treatment, many people use alternative treatments to get rid of intestinal parasites. Before you decide on any course of action, please see a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis, and keep in mind that the effectiveness of supplements and alternative remedies for intestinal parasites has not been widely researched.
Some of the more popular alternative remedies include:
- Wormwood – Wormwood is an herb that has long been used as a remedy for intestinal worms. It is thought to be effective in weakening the membranes of the parasites. Wormwood can used in the form of tea, capsules, or liquid extract. Pure wormwood oil, however, is toxic, and should never be ingested.
- Wormseed- Wormseed has traditionally been used for expelling hookworms, tapeworms, and roundworms. Wormseed tea is considered the best way to ingest wormseed.
- Garlic – Garlic is believed to be effective in treating roundworms and can be used in the form of whole garlic cloves or in capsule or tablet form.
- Pumpkin Seeds – Pumpkin seeds have been used to treat tapeworms and roundworms. The seeds are used in large quantities, with an adult dose being up to 25 ounces of seeds mashed and mixed with juice. In order to cleanse the intestines, many herbalists recommend that a laxative be used a few hours after consuming a dose of pumpkin seeds.
The following is an herbalist-recommended diet for cleansing the body of intestinal worms:
Cut alcohol, coffee, refined sugar, and other refined foods out of your diet on a temporary basis. Eat anti-parasitic foods, including raw garlic, pineapple, papaya seeds, turmeric and cloves. Also eat a diet rich in beta carotene, which is thought to assist in strengthening the body’s resistance to penetration by larvae.
Examples of foods containing beta carotene are sweet potatoes, carrots, and squash. Include probiotics in your diet to help rebuild good intestinal bacteria, this can be done by eating yogurt with live active cultures. Finally, make sure that your diet is well-balanced and rich in fruits and vegetables, and stay away from fatty foods.
Other natural remedies that some believe are effective in treating intestinal worms include
- Olive leaf
- Black walnut
- Grapefruit seed extract
By taking a few simple precautions, you can avoid having to deal with intestinal worms.
- First, wash your hands frequently. Always wash your hands before you prepare or eat food, and when you’ve been outside and in contact with soil or in contact with animals.
- Keep your fingernails short and clean.
- Before eating raw fruits or vegetables, wash them thoroughly.
- Make sure that you always cook your meat to the recommended temperature before eating.
- If you’re going outside, wear shoes – and make sure your children do, too.
- If you or your children go swimming, avoid swallowing or drinking the water in the pool or lake.
- When traveling to destinations where you might be exposed to intestinal worms, be sure you have access to clean drinking water, and make sure your food comes from a reliable source.
- Keep your pets flea-free.