The Grossest Reason to Never Eat (Under-Cooked) Pork Again
Sometimes you see something in your email and you just have to click it. That was me, today opening an email from Health.com about a 25-year-old healthy woman who was suffering from headaches, visual impairment, and ocular migraines, and was diagnosed with a "lesion" and when the doctor went in to operate it turned out to be a nest of tapeworm larvae, in her brain. Grosssss....
Good news for her is when the larvae were removed, all of her symptoms based. And though she had lived in Australia her whole life and never traveled to a place where such things happen more commonly, there was another similar case right here in Austin, Texas, of a man who had a tapeworm lodged in his brain, for what turned out to be ten years, and in both cases, the doctors believe that the worms made their way into the patients' bodies by eating undercooked pork, in his case in Mexico. No one knows where the female patient's larvae came from, since she had not traveled out of the country to third world countries where these worms are more common.
According to The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, the case of the woman was extremely mysterious since most of these cases happen in Africa, Latin America, and third world countries where pigs eat a diet that can allow them to ingest human feces. The study in the journal concluded by saying: "The unusual features of the clinical presentation and epidemiology are highlighted to raise physicians’ awareness that attention needs to be paid to the risk of autochthonous infection occurring in non-endemic countries."
Tapeworms usually occur in the digestive system, but the larvae can travel to organs
Getting a tapeworm is not as rare as it sounds. These ugly sounding creatures take up residence in the intestines and their larvae can travel to other organs and cause lesions and serious health complications. My brother had a friend growing up who had a tapeworm, in his intestines, and the reason they figured it out was that this teenage boy went from being an overweight kid to a skinny kid in the space of a few weeks, and when we heard about his tapeworm my mom explained to us that it's because the tapeworm ate all the nutrients that he put into his body until it grew so big that they had to get it out. He had an operation to remove the worm, which by that time was six feet long, or so the story went. and shortly after the operation, he put back on all the weight. These are the kinds of childhood stories that nightmares are made of, let me promise you, and I thought of it again when I saw Alien.
Pork tapeworms come from eating uncooked meat, contaminated with larvae
These two recent adult cases were caused by a condition that can happen when someone eats meat or food that is not cooked enough, especially pork but it can also happen with beef or even fish, according to the Mayo Clinic, and the worms or larvae survive long enough in the body to travel through the body and take up residence, hopefully not inside your brain. A man in Austin Texas had a similar case of a tapeworm harboring in his brain, for ten years, and earlier this year and after ten years of headaches, doctors removed the tapeworm from his brain.
These things are pork tapeworms or Taenia solium, and the condition they cause is called NCC, which stands for Neurocysticercosis. The tapeworm comes from eating under-booked pork. Most people who get tapeworms experience them in the intestines, which let's be honest is gross enough. But in your brain? It turns out that you can get infected with it after eating undercooked food (particularly pork), according to health.com, or coming into contact with food, water, or soil contaminated with tapeworm eggs. "If Taeniasis (the name of the actual tapeworm infection) is left untreated, the tapeworm eggs can travel through the bloodstream into the brain and form cysts," the article explains. "NCC is the most severe form of the disease and is a common cause of epilepsy worldwide, says the WHO."
How to best avoid tapeworm larvae in your food, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Ingestion of eggs. If you eat food or drink water contaminated with feces from a person or animal with tapeworm, you ingest microscopic tapeworm eggs. For example, a pig infected with tapeworm will pass tapeworm eggs in its feces, which gets into the soil. If this same soil comes in contact with a food or water source, it becomes contaminated. You can then be infected when you eat or drink something from the contaminated source. Once inside your intestines, the eggs develop into larvae. At this stage, the larvae become mobile. If they migrate out of your intestines, they form cysts in other tissues, such as your lungs, central nervous system, or liver.
- Ingestion of larvae cysts in meat or muscle tissue. When an animal has a tapeworm infection, it has tapeworm larvae in its muscle tissue. If you eat raw or undercooked meat from an infected animal, you ingest the larvae, which then develop into adult tapeworms in your intestines. Adult tapeworms can measure more than 80 feet (25 meters) long and can survive as long as 30 years in a host. Some tapeworms attach themselves to the walls of the intestines, where they cause irritation or mild inflammation, while others may pass through to your stool and exit your body.
Risk factors for tapeworm, according to Mayo Clinic:
Factors that may put you at greater risk of tapeworm infection include:
- Poor hygiene. Infrequent washing and bathing increases the risk of accidental transfer of contaminated matter to your mouth.
- Exposure to livestock. This is especially problematic in areas where human and animal feces are not disposed of properly.
- Traveling to developing countries. Infection occurs more frequently in areas with poor sanitation practices.
- Eating raw or undercooked meats. Improper cooking may fail to kill tapeworm eggs and larvae contained in contaminated pork or beef.
- Living in endemic areas. In certain parts of the world, exposure to tapeworm eggs is more likely. For instance, your risk of coming into contact with eggs of the pork tapeworm (Taenia solium) is greater in areas of Latin America, China, sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia where free-range pigs may be more common.
Complications of tapeworm, and how to know if you have it:
Intestinal tapeworm infections usually don't cause complications. If complications do occur, they may include:
- Digestive blockage. If tapeworms grow large enough, they can block your appendix, leading to infection (appendicitis); your bile ducts, which carry bile from your liver and gallbladder to your intestine; or your pancreatic duct, which carries digestive fluids from your pancreas to your intestine.
- Brain and central nervous system impairment. Called neurocysticercosis (noor-o-sis-tih-sur-KOE-sis), this especially dangerous complication of invasive pork tapeworm infection can result in headaches and visual impairment, as well as seizures, meningitis, hydrocephalus or dementia. Death can occur in severe cases of infection.
- Organ function disruption. When larvae migrate to the liver, lungs or other organs, they become cysts. Over time, these cysts grow, sometimes large enough to crowd the functioning parts of the organ or reduce its blood supply. Tapeworm cysts sometimes rupture, releasing more larvae, which can move to other organs and form additional cysts.A ruptured or leaking cyst can cause an allergy-like reaction, with itching, hives, swelling and difficulty breathing. Surgery or organ transplantation may be needed in severe cases.
To prevent tapeworm infection:
- Wash your hands with soap and water before eating or handling food and after using the toilet.
- When traveling in areas where tapeworm is more common, wash and cook all fruits and vegetables with safe water before eating. If water might not be safe, be sure to boil it for at least a minute and then let it cool off before using it.
- Eliminate livestock exposure to tapeworm eggs by properly disposing of animal and human feces.
- Thoroughly cook meat at temperatures of at least 145 F (63 C) to kill tapeworm eggs or larvae.
- Freeze meat for as long as seven to 10 days and fish for at least 24 hours in a freezer with a temperature of -31 F (-35C) to kill tapeworm eggs and larvae.
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked pork, beef and fish.
- Promptly treat dogs infected with tapeworm.
Until further notice, we are staying away from undercooked or any kind of pork, meat or worm-loving foods. We are just relieved to hear that after those larvae were removed from the woman's brain, she was a-okay and back to full health.