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Tapeworms: Easy Weight Loss Or Potentially Fatal?

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Tapeworms: Easy Weight Loss Or Potentially Fatal?

Jun 15, 2016

Ever joked with your friends about eating a tapeworm to lose weight? While weight loss may seem tempting, tapeworms can be very dangerous. Sometimes growing up to 30 feet, tapeworms can cause countless medical issues. ARUP medical technologist Kristen Case talks about the signs and symptoms of tapeworms and how to avoid them.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Tapeworms. How do you know if you have one and where did it come from, anyway? We'll examine that next on The Scope.

Announcer: Health tips, medical news, research and more for a happier, healthier life. From University of Utah Health Sciences, this is The Scope.

Interviewer: Kristen Case is from ARUP Laboratories, which is one of the country's top labs that specializes in identifying parasites so doctors know how to treat them. My first question for you, Kristen, is - and I'm sure it's the same thing that's on everybody's mind when they hear the word "tapeworm" - how much weight can I lose if I have one, and will it be in time for swimsuit season?

Kristen: Yes.

Interviewer: I mean, I joke, but look. I did an internet search. Look at this.

Kristen: Yes, you can lose weight if you have a tapeworm. That's one of the symptoms of having a tapeworm.

Interviewer: Yeah. This ad I found on the internet is an actual ad, "Sanitized tapeworms, jar-packed to lose fat."

Kristen: Yes.

Interviewer: That was a weight loss method at one point.

Kristen: Yes, it is, and it actually still is, but not in the United States. In other countries you still can infect yourself with a tapeworm to lose weight.

Interviewer: Ugh. So, okay, I'm imagining that's probably not a good idea, and let's get to that in a second. But first of all, if you get a tapeworm that you didn't want, how do you even get that? I don't even know how that happens. Is it from the ground?

Kristen: You get tapeworms from undercooked meat.

Interviewer: Okay.

Kristen: Undercooked beef, pork, and even fish.

Interviewer: That's where they live.

Kristen: Yes.

Interviewer: All right. So you consume that, then it ends up in your intestines or your stomach? Where does it live?

Kristen: It does. Yes, the end of the life cycle for that parasite is in the human intestine, and from there it just grows and grows. For example, the fish tapeworm, it can grow up to 30 feet.

Interviewer: Oh!

Kristen: It can live in you for up to a decade undetected.

Interviewer: And then if it does that for a decade undetected, then it just finally goes through its life cycle?

Kristen: Yeah.

Interviewer: Then do you pass it?

Kristen: Yes, you would pass it.

Interviewer: So that's when you go . . .

Kristen: That's when you would know.

Interviewer: "Oh, man."

Kristen: When you start passing segments of the tapeworm, that's when you know that you have a parasite, typically.

Interviewer: Oh, okay. Got you.

Kristen: There are some other symptoms like abdominal pain, weight loss. You can get anemic because that parasite is taking the nutrients from your intestines, so you can become anemic and have some vitamin deficiencies. But what that really presents like is you're tired, you're lethargic. That can mean a lot of different things to a doctor and so as they're trying to figure out maybe what you have, the parasite continues to grow undetected.

Interviewer: So then what do doctors start doing, because what you described as symptoms, you described tired. Who isn't? Who doesn't feel tired or run down? How do they even start to unravel that that's what it is?

Kristen: Usually, it's when the human passes a segment of that parasite or of that tapeworm. That's when they have the "ah-ha" moment, or if you're a really big sushi enthusiast, and you're eating a ton of raw fish and you tell your doctor that, he might start doing some testing for a tapeworm.

Interviewer: Okay. So then the doctor would take some sort of a stool sample, send it to you at ARUP Laboratories, and then how do you determine if somebody has a tapeworm? Is there some sort of a test or do you just put it under a microscope and start looking for them?

Kristen: Yes. We do some processing to that stool specimen, concentrate it so we can see as many parasites as possible if they're there, and then we look at it under a microscope. A very highly-trained person sits at a microscope and looks for what we call "eggs" or "ova" that are passed by these tapeworms in the stool.

Interviewer: So if I have a tapeworm, those will be there?

Kristen: Yes.

Interviewer: You might not see evidence of the tapeworm other than that, though?

Kristen: Yes.

Interviewer: Okay. So then you see that and you let the doctor know, "Well, your patient has a tapeworm." What does the doctor do at that point? Is there a treatment?

Kristen: Yes. Depending on which parasite you have, or which tapeworm you have, the doctor will prescribe some medication that kills that parasite and then the tapeworm passes.

Interviewer: All right. So other than the symptoms you kind of described, maybe some anemia, are they really dangerous?

Kristen: They can be and again it depends on which tapeworm. There's a tapeworm called "Taenia solium". You get it from eating undercooked pork, and it actually can go to your intestines or it can travel to other parts of your body and even end up in your brain. If it does end up in your brain that could have devastating results.

Interviewer: Sure, that would make sense. Here in the United States, how much of a danger is it that you're really going to get one, though? Are we pretty good here?

Kristen: Yes. Our food is really safe in the United States. We have food inspectors and things like that. But it is possible. We do receive tapeworms at ARUP that the person has no travel history outside of the United States, so that means that they would've contracted it somehow in the United States.

Interviewer: So it can happen, but it's not something to be super-freaked about?

Kristen: No. It can happen, but it's not very common in the United States.

Interviewer: A lot of times you see the eggs, and that's how you know that somebody . . . Have you actually been sent a tapeworm?

Kristen: Yes. We get a couple tapeworms that you can see with the naked eye. We get at least a couple a month. To the naked eye, the different tapeworms have some different characteristics, and so we can identify which type of tapeworm they have from that segment. Again, tapeworms are not super-common in the United States, so don't be scared. If you like your beef rare, I say eat it.

Interviewer: Okay.

Kristen: If you do travel to other countries where the food isn't inspected as well as it is here in the United States, be careful.

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