Tapeworm Symptoms and Complications

When to See a Healthcare Provider for Treatment

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If you're infected with a tapeworm, symptoms depend on the type of tapeworm you have. Some people have no symptoms while others have several digestive complaints.

Most tapeworm infections come from eating food infected with a tapeworm or its eggs. The most common cause is raw or undercooked meat.

These intestinal parasites can also lead to other problems in the digestive tract or elsewhere in your body. This article explores the range of possible tapeworm symptoms by type, the potential complications, and when you should see a healthcare provider.

Types of Tapeworm

Several types of tapeworms can infect humans, including:

  • Beef tapeworm (Taenia saginata)
  • Pork tapeworm (Taenia solium)
  • Asian tapeworm (Taenia asiatica)
  • Dwarf tapeworm (Hymenolepis nana)
  • Fish tapeworm/broad tapeworm (Diphyllobothrium latum)
tapeworm symptoms
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Frequent Tapeworm Symptoms

Tapeworms are a type of flatworm that lives in the digestive tract of people or animals. You may be infected with a tapeworm for months or even years before symptoms appear.

While tapeworm symptoms depend on the type, they primarily have to do with your digestive system.

Asian, Beef, and Pork Tapeworm Symptoms

Symptoms of Asian, beef, and pork tapeworms are generally the same. However, the beef tapeworm is the largest of these parasites. It can grow to over 30 feet long and may be more likely to cause noticeable symptoms. 

Symptoms of these three types of tapeworm may include:

These tapeworms can get quite long and produce tens of thousands of eggs that develop int more tapeworms.

Type Length in Feet # of Proglottids Eggs per Proglottid
Asian 13-26 About 700 80,000
Beef 13-82 1,000-2,000 100,000
Pork 6.5-26 About 1,000 50,000
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Dwarf Tapeworm Symptoms

Dwarf tapeworm symptoms are similar but may make you feel sicker than the Asian, beef, or pork worms. Symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Weakness

In children, dwarf tapeworm symptoms may also include:

  • Anal itching
  • Headache
  • Sleep disturbances

The dwarf tapeworm is named for its size—it's usually only about two inches long.

Fish or Broad Tapeworm Symptoms

Fish tapeworm symptoms are usually mild. They can include: 

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness
  • Unintended weight loss

The fish tapeworm can reach a length of 30 feet.

Complications of Tapeworm Infection

You can get complications from a tapeworm infection if tapeworm sections or eggs migrate away from the parasite inside or outside of the digestive tract. Again, this depends on the type of tapeworm you have.

An adult tapeworm living in the digestive tract produces segments, or proglottids, that contain both female and male reproductive parts. Proglottids become pregnant with eggs and are released from the parent tapeworm. They can pass into other areas of the digestive system or out of the body in a bowel movement.

Asian, Beef, and Pork Tapeworm Complications

It's rare, but when the proglottids from Asian, beef, and pork tapeworms migrate through your digestive tract and to other organs, they can block bile ducts or get into the appendix.

Symptoms of a blocked bile duct can include:

  • Middle abdomen pain
  • Nausea
  • Severe, increasing upper abdominal pain lasting 30 minutes to hours
  • Pain between the shoulder blades 
  • Pain under the right shoulder
  • Vomiting

A proglottid in the appendix can cause appendicitis, which is a potentially life-threatening illness. Get emergency medical help if you have abdominal pain that:

  • Begins near your belly button and moves to your lower right abdomen
  • Starts suddenly
  • Gets worse with movement, deep breathing, and sneezing
  • Worsens over the course of several hours
  • Gets better when you press on the spot, then worsens when you release the pressure

Other appendicitis symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Abdominal swelling

More Pork Tapeworm Complications

Eggs of the pork tapeworm can cause a serious complication called cysticercosis.

When pork tapeworm eggs hatch and grow into the larval stage, they can leave the intestinal tract and go into other areas of the body, where they cause cysts.

A cyst is a small sac or cavity that contains fluid. Cysts from tapeworm larva can be in many different places, including:

  • Muscles
  • Eyes
  • Brain
  • Under the skin
  • Other organs

When a cyst forms in the central nervous system (brain or spinal cord) it causes a complication called neurocysticercosis. The symptoms of this condition depend on the exact location of the cysts but can include:

  • Headaches
  • Seizures 
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Weakness 

While rare in the United States, neurocysticercosis is a major public health concern in developing nations where human tapeworm infections are more common.

Dwarf Tapeworm Complications

Dwarf tapeworm infection isn't linked to any known complications. However, a prolonged infection can lead to more severe symptoms.

Fish or Broad Tapeworm Complications

The fish tapeworm siphons vitamin B12 out of your body, which can cause a B12 deficiency. Because B12 is necessary for you to create blood cells, the parasite can lead to anemia.

Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause neuropathy (pain from damaged nerves), which can be life-threatening if untreated. Symptoms of fish tapeworm complications can include:

The fish tapeworm can lead to bowel obstructions, both due to its length and to migrating proglottids. Proglottids can also cause gallbladder problems.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Tapeworm symptoms are often mild, which might not prompt a visit to the doctor right away.

However, ongoing digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, pain, and unintended weight loss are all reasons to see a healthcare provider.

Red flag symptoms mean you should get immediate medical care. They include:

  • Severe abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Lack of bowel movements
  • Abdominal distention

These symptoms could indicate an intestinal blockage.

You should also get prompt treatment for:

  • Seizures
  • Tingling, numbness, or weakness in the extremities

If those symptoms are severe, get emergency treatment.

If you have visible tapeworm segments in your stool, collect the stool in a plastic container and take it to your healthcare provider or a lab as soon as possible. That can help you get a proper diagnosis.

Summary

Tapeworm symptoms can be mild or non-existent. When you do have symptoms, they're usually digestive (abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite).

Other symptoms and possible complications are different depending on what type of tapeworm you have. Complications can include anemia, vitamin D deficiency, and seizures.

You should see a healthcare provider for ongoing digestive symptoms, symptoms of intestinal blockage, or neurological problems such as seizures and numbness in your hands and feet.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do people get tapeworms?

    People get tapeworms by consuming contaminated food and water or through contact with infected stool (the fecal-oral route).

    You can prevent tapeworm infection by regularly washing your hands and avoiding raw or undercooked meat.

  • How long does it take for tapeworm symptoms to develop?

    Sometimes, tapeworm symptoms develop within a few months of the parasite taking up residence in your intestine.

    More often, though, a tapeworm can be in the human body for years without causing symptoms. Some never cause symptoms at all.

  • What are tapeworm proglottids?

    Proglottids are egg-containing segments of tapeworms that break away from the head and neck of the parasite. They're whiteish in color and can range from a half inch to an inch long.

    Tapeworm segments typically travel through the digestive system and are passed with bowel movements, so you may see them in your stool.

  • What happens if a tapeworm isn't treated?

    The consequences of not treating a tapeworm infection depends on the species in question. Some possible complications include:

    • Blocked intestines or bile ducts
    • Appendicitis
    • Anemia
    • Vitamin B12 deficiency
    • Neurological cysts that can lead to seizures

    You may also develop severe digestive symptoms.

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nemours KidsHealth. Tapeworm.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parasites: Taeniasis FAQs.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Hymenolepiasis.

  4. Merck Manual Professional Edition. Diphyllobothriasis (fish tapeworm infection).

  5. National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Fish tapeworm infection.

  6. Merck Manual Professional Edition. Taenia solium (pork tapeworm) infection and cysticercosis.

  7. National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms & causes of appendicitis.

  8. World Health Organization. 10 facts about neurocysticercosis.

  9. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): Food Safety and Inspection Service. Parasites and foodborne illness.

  10. Sepsis Alliance. Parasitic infections.

  11. American Academy of Pediatrics. Tapeworms.

Additional Reading

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.