We've all heard urban legends about the waste tapeworms can lay on a person's body, but did you ever wonder what happens if you eat a tapeworm and how people actually get infected with a tapeworm in the first place? And what are the symptoms of a tapeworm to look out for?
Most children remember finding earthworms in the dirt as they played outside. Worms are typically fairly harmless - even defenseless - creatures, and most children would never consider eating an earthworm. However, earthworms belong to a different phylum than tapeworms. The tapeworm is a parasitic bowel dweller that, unlike its benign cousin, seeks to feed on the inside of a living host.
A tapeworm begins its journey as an egg existing within the intestinal tract of a living host. It then finds a new host when ingested by an animal through tainted vegetation. Ultimately, it finds a human host when a person eats undercooked and tapeworm-infected meat. While the inside of the human body has many organisms and bacteria living in it, a tapeworm might be one of the most ruthless invading parasites. As for people strange enough to try the tapeworm diet, they could find themselves in a disastrous position.
Tapeworms begin their lives as eggs. The eggs typically get ingested by cows or pigs via spoiled vegetation. The eggs hatch inside of their animal host and invade the animal's organs and tissues. When a human being eats the meat of the infected animal, that infection passes to the person.
The tapeworm's scolex attaches to the intestines and begins its parasitic journey inside of its human host.
The scolex is basically the tapeworm's "head" or front. It's the head of the tapeworm that has the suckers, and the way it attaches itself to your insides is with its suckers. As a tapeworm feeds and grows, it forms the proglottids, which are basically like sections of the tapeworm.
The longer the tapeworm is, the more little tapeworm eggs it can continue to lay up in its host. The tapeworm's proglottids continue to grow and typically deposit eggs in its host's intestines. The eggs then get passed, and the tapeworm's eggs begin their parasitic life cycles.
Tapeworms are usually found in beef or pork. When people eat the undercooked meat of an infected animal, a tapeworm can pass to the human being ingesting the meat. Typically, it's tapeworm larva that infects meat. Once it's inside its human host, it begins to grow.
Beef or pork tapeworms can live for years and grow up to 12 feet long. Poor hygiene can also cause tapeworm infection, so your mom wasn't joking when she told you to wash your hands before leaving the bathroom.
Tapeworms get their nickname because of their tape measure-like shape. People often get a tapeworm from the most common means, such as eating infected and undercooked meat, but it's also possible to catch a tapeworm from animal feces or adulterated water. That means not even vegans are safe from these parasites.
One of the most concerning things about a tapeworm infection is that infected people tend to be asymptomatic and are therefore clueless that they have a giant parasite living inside of them. While treatment for a tapeworm is nearly 95% effective within a few days, people first need to discover that a tapeworm lives inside of them. The problem is that a tapeworm usually has flu-like symptoms only, something that people tend to brush off.