Worms are a type of intestinal parasite that can live in humans, and parasites are organisms that feed off their host, causing health problems. You can get worms from contaminated drinking water or food, bug bites, or exposure to feces. They can also be caused by poor hygiene or sanitation. Identifying worms involves looking for parasite symptoms, which include:
- Runny, watery diarrhea
- Nausea or vomiting
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Abdominal tenderness or pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Frequent, ongoing headaches
- Anal itching
- Feeling fatigued
- White specks in poop
Some worms, such as tapeworms, can also cause an allergic reaction, including bumps or lumps, along with fever and, in rare cases, neurological issues like seizures. It is also very possible to have intestinal parasites with no symptoms at all. Your symptoms may also be quite mild. Whether or not you have symptoms, if infected with parasites, you are still a carrier who can infect others.
Although parasites in humans include a wide variety of worms, some of the most common are flatworms, roundworms, and hookworms. These are not always visible, although a doctor can often detect eggs in a stool test.
One of the more common intestinal parasites in humans, tapeworms or Cestodes are found in areas with poor access to clean water and around farms, near livestock. They can also be found in contaminated water or raw or undercooked meat. Pork in particular is a potential source for tapeworms (specifically, Taenia solium).
One of the more common intestinal parasites in humans, tapeworms or Cestodes are found in areas with poor access to clean water and around farms, near livestock.
White, long, and ribbon-like in appearance, tapeworms, once ingested, embed themselves in the intestinal wall or muscles — this is called cysticercosis. If the tapeworms embed themselves in brain tissue it’s called neurocysticercosis. As you eat, the worm uses the nutrients from your food to grow. Tapeworm eggs then enter your bloodstream and hatch inside tissues. Older parts eventually fall off, exiting via bowel movements.
Tapeworms have a long life span, living in humans for up to 30 years and growing up to 80 feet in length.
Also called threadworms, pinworms are tiny roundworms (nematodes). They’re the most common type of worm infection in the United States. Children are especially vulnerable. White, thin, and short (the length of a staple), pinworms are spread from feces to the mouth. Pinworm eggs can live on a variety of surfaces including bathroom furniture, linens, and toys for as long as 3 weeks.
The pinworm, once ingested, makes its home in the rectum and colon area. At nighttime, the female pinworm comes outside the anus to lay her eggs, which are microscopic in size. If you scratch the area, the eggs then travel to whatever is touched next. They are so tiny, in fact, that they can become airborne and are easily inhaled. Pinworms are frequently passed between children and among adults in institutions like nursing homes.
Although they aren’t pleasant to think about, most cases of pinworms are minor and can be easily treated. However, they can sometimes cause infections in the uterus or the vagina. According to one study, in rare cases, they can cause acute appendicitis. It’s important to note that the study also found that symptoms of a parasitic infection may be the same as those of acute appendicitis, even if the person doesn’t have appendicitis.
Flukes, or trematodes, are another type of flatworm, but they’re more likely to affect animals than people. Up to a few inches long, flukes can be ingested in contaminated water and by eating certain freshwater plants. Like other parasitic worms, this worm can take up residence in the lungs, liver, or blood, depending on the species.
Although trichinosis worms are most commonly passed among animals, people can come in contact with them by eating undercooked meat that contains larvae. Once inside the body, the larvae stay in the intestines, where they grow and reproduce. After the worms have begun reproducing, they can travel to other parts of the body, including the muscles and other tissues.
These tiny worms, also called Necator americanus, can be found in contaminated soil and fecal matter, which are the main sources of infection in people. For instance, the larvae (which can break through the skin) can gain access to your body if you walk on contaminated soil. Like trichinosis worms, hookworms attach to your intestinal wall. They can cause microcytic anemia.
Humans get worms in a variety of ways. Public pools and gyms, contact with animals, or consuming contaminated food and water are the main causes.
Raw, undercooked meat, fish, or poultry are some of the worst offenders. But consumption is only one way to get worms — letting raw or undercooked meat touch other food or surfaces in your kitchen also spreads parasites. Another major source is fecal matter.
Worms are passed to humans in a variety of ways. Pools and gyms, contact with animals, or consuming contaminated food and water are the main causes.
For a number of reasons, children are more susceptible to contracting parasitic worms. Kids don’t always have the best hand-washing technique and may also frequently play in areas where worms are easily spread, like sandboxes or pools. Individuals with weakened immune systems may also be at increased risk.
Worms are more common in developing countries, where there is less access to unpolluted water and sanitary living conditions. As much as 24 percent of the global population likely suffers from soil-transmitted worms, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
If you have visible parasites in your stool or other symptoms of an infection, you should see your doctor. Although some types of intestinal worms may disappear on their own, you can also receive testing and treatment if necessary. Those who have serious symptoms, such as vomiting or blood or pus in their stool, should not wait to see a doctor immediately.
A strong and healthy immune system is often the first defense against an infection. Still, depending on the type of worm, you may need to take an antiparasitic medication.
When treating stomach worms, it is important that everyone in the family gets treated, not just the person with symptoms, to avoid reinfection.
Your doctor will first test you, using either one or multiple stool tests to determine the presence of microscopic worms or larvae. There is also the “Scotch tape” test, in which you apply tape to the anus to capture pinworm eggs so they can be identified using a microscope. A blood test, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), CT (computer tomography), or X-ray may also be needed to determine the location and severity of the infection.
Depending on the type of intestinal worm you have, treatment can include oral medications or at-home treatments. Praziquantel forces tapeworms to detach themselves from your intestines and dissolve, eventually exiting your body through your stool. Other common antiparasitic oral medications for treating roundworm infection include albendazole and mebendazole.
When treating stomach worms, it is important that everyone in the family gets treated, not just the person with symptoms, to avoid reinfection. Also, although medications work the majority of the time, in situations where a parasite infection is spreading, surgery or additional medications may be necessary.
Although there are at-home treatments available, there is no research to support their effectiveness. With that being said, foods like coconut oil, raw garlic, and raw carrots are believed to be effective remedies for treating worms at home. Remember to see your doctor if symptoms do not improve after trying at-home treatments. They can prescribe an over-the-counter medication and monitor your progress accordingly.
There are a number of ways to prevent intestinal worms in humans. Chief among them are washing your hands and proper food safety.
Most experts agree that washing your hands regularly — especially before eating and after visiting the bathroom — is key to disease prevention. In fact, it may be that you aren’t washing your hands enough. In addition to hand-washing, there are a number of other ways to prevent or reduce the chances of exposure:
- Food safety matters: At the top on the list of food safety when it comes to avoiding intestinal parasites is avoiding the places where they hide. To that end, steering clear of raw fish, including sushi, as well as other raw or undercooked meats is the first step to protecting yourself. Instead, make sure all meat is cooked to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit for whole cuts of meat and 160 degrees Fahrenheit for poultry and ground meat. You should also freeze fish and meat for at least 24 hours before cooking. It’s also important to wash or peel all fruits and vegetables and to keep them (and cutting boards or other kitchen appliances they have touched) away from raw meat.
- Proceed with caution in developing countries: Make sure to drink only bottled water, and know how your food is prepared. Bring hand sanitizer along to keep it handy for places where soap and water are not available.
- Clean up after your pets: Pets, including their feces, can be a source of parasitic worms. Litter boxes should be emptied daily and changed regularly, and feces should be quickly cleaned up outdoors.
Sometimes, worms do leave the body on their own. However, other infections may require treatment. If symptoms persist or are bothering you, it’s time to see your doctor. If you are pregnant and you suspect you have parasitic worms, see your doctor right away to get appropriate medication and treatment. If you have tried at-home remedies, like garlic or coconut oil, and symptoms persist or worsen, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Because parasites can spread and cause worsening symptoms, it’s important to not let an infection go untreated.