This Dr. Axe content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure factually accurate information.
With strict editorial sourcing guidelines, we only link to academic research institutions, reputable media sites and, when research is available, medically peer-reviewed studies. Note that the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) are clickable links to these studies.
The information in our articles is NOT intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.
This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by our trained editorial staff. Note that the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) are clickable links to medically peer-reviewed studies.
Our team includes licensed nutritionists and dietitians, certified health education specialists, as well as certified strength and conditioning specialists, personal trainers and corrective exercise specialists. Our team aims to be not only thorough with its research, but also objective and unbiased.
The information in our articles is NOT intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.
February 1, 2020
More than 100 million cases of tapeworm infections occur globally every year. (1) Tapeworm infections affect the intestines of humans and occur when people eat raw or undercooked, contaminated animal foods. They can even affect other organs in rare instances, including the brain.
Surprisingly, tapeworms don’t always cause any noticeable symptoms at all. However when they do, tapeworm symptoms — and those caused by other similar parasitic infections — can sometimes become very serious, even life-threatening. When present, tapeworm symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, cramps, trouble sleeping and more.
The actual infections that tapeworms cause mostly affect the intestinal wall, but can become more complicated when tapeworm larvae/eggs move through the bloodstream and attach to skeletal muscle or tissues, where they’re able to form cysts. One rare example of a complicated tapeworm infection was discovered in a man who complained of splitting headaches and migraine symptoms like nausea and vomiting for years; it turned out that he was suffering from a condition called neurocysticercosis, which causes neurological symptoms when tapeworm larval cysts develop in the brain.
What can you do to help overcome a tapeworm infection and relieve tapeworm symptoms? Natural treatments include performing a parasitic cleanse, consuming supplements to help improve detoxification, and enemas or colonics.
What Is a Tapeworm?
Tapeworms are flat, sometimes very long worms that are able to survive inside the digestive system of both humans and animals.
A parasite is an organism that lives on or in a host and gets its food from or at the expense of its host. A parasite’s eggs can even live inside raw meat, including beef, pork and fish.
Cysts that lead to tapeworms are what humans consume when they eat contaminated meat (especially pork) or fish. Eggs stored inside the cysts eventually hatch, and the newly born worms then continue the cycle by latching on to the host’s intestinal wall as an energy supply.
Six different species of tapeworms have now been identified that cause millions of human infections around the world every year — and the tapeworm symptoms that accompany them. (2)
Some of the most common types of tapeworm infections are caused by parasites, including beef tapeworms, pork tapeworms, fish tapeworms, dwarf tapeworms (Hymenolepis nana) and the Echinococcus species of tapeworms. Taenia saginata is the species found in beef, Taenia solium from pork and Diphyllobothrium latum from fish. Pork and fish tapeworms can sometimes grow up to 15—30 feet in length.
And because the worms can lay eggs inside of a human’s or animal’s digestive tract that make their way into stool, the eggs can sometimes spread to other people (refereed to as “intermediate hosts”) through contact with feces or from environmental runoff.
It’s believed that the majority of people who become infected with tapeworms don’t ever know it or develop noticeable tapeworm symptoms or complications. The tapeworm is eventually killed off inside the intestines and excreted through a bowel movement. However, some people are not so lucky and manage to stay infected with a tapeworm for months or even years, left to deal with uncomfortable tapeworm symptoms.
The most common tapeworm symptoms and signs include: (3)
- An upset stomach or nausea
- Diarrhea or loose stools
- Muscle weakness and fatigue
- Cramps and abdominal pains
- Changes in appetite, including feeling very hungry despite eating or loss of appetite
- Weight loss (even despite eating)
- Signs of nutrient deficiencies, including cognitive problems like poor concentration and fatigue
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in stool and sometimes segments of the worm appearing in a bowel movement. Some people can even feel a small piece of the tapeworm exit the anus or notice a moving, ribbon-like worm inside the toilet bowel.
- Animals, including pets like dogs or cats, can also become infected with tapeworms. Tapeworm symptoms in dogs or cats can include vomiting, loss of appetite, low energy or diarrhea.
Natural Treatments for Tapeworm Symptoms
1. Thoroughly Cook Meat and Fish
Because eating raw or undercooked meat and fish is the most common cause of tapeworm infections, the best way to protect yourself is to cook these foods thoroughly before consuming them. Most experts recommend cooking animal foods to at least 135 degrees Fahrenheit (57 degrees Celsius). Cysts and eggs within meat or fish also commonly die off at this temperature or when frozen for extended periods (more than several days). Unfortunately, drying or smoking meat and fish usually is not enough to kill all eggs.
Because freshwater fish are capable of passing tapeworms to their eggs, it’s recommended that these fish never be served raw (sushi-style). Whenever consuming freshwater fish, make sure it’s cooked, ideally frozen after it’s caught or properly cured/brined. The very best way to prevent tapeworm infections from contaminated animal foods is also having a trained health code adviser check the meat or fish before it goes to market, since cysts within meat/fish are often visible to the naked eye.
2. Parasitic Cleanse
A parasitic cleanse diet can help you overcome intestinal infection symptoms and prevent complications. Eating a healthy diet can also lower the odds of becoming infected with a parasite because it helps boost immunity and excludes certain risky foods (such as pork).
I recommend following the steps below for a parasite cleanse for about a week, at the same time consuming the anti-parasitic supplements listed below. After one week, keep consuming a healthy diet, but take a week off from the cleanse and supplements to help your body adjust. Then complete two more weeks of the cleanse plus supplements.
Here are the steps to take in order to complete a parasite cleanse:
- Avoid pork products. Pork can carry parasites and worms, so if you eat pork consistently, there’s a high chance that you might ingest a parasite. I recommend you cut out all pork products from your diet for good.
- Increase your intake of organic vegetables. Focus on consuming big salads, fresh veggie juices, soups or smoothies made with greens. Garlic, onions and fresh herbs are especially helpful. These have immune-boosting and anti-parasitic effects. Focus on including herbs like oregano and ginger in your recipes.
- Remove added sugar. All sugar and all grains can contribute to gut imbalance and worsen inflammation. During a parasitic cleanse I recommend you mimic a Paleo-type diet to remove these foods.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates and grains. Many grains, especially those containing wheat/gluten, can break down into sugar quickly and cause intestinal inflammation.
- Reduce or eliminate fruit. Stick to about one serving or less daily. However, papaya and papaya juice are an exception, as papaya has natural anti-parasitic properties.
- Consume coconut oil, meat and milk. This can include making coconut smoothies with coconut milk or using pure coconut oil. Coconut oil has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
- Consume chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and bone broth in order to get fiber and protein. Pumpkin seeds (along with pumpkin seed butter or pumpkin oil) are especially helpful due to certain nutrients and anti-parasitic compounds they contain.
- Only consume organic meat that has been grass-fed or pasture-raised. Avoid processed meat products or conventionally/farm-raised meat.
- Only consume wild-caught fish. I also recommend avoiding shellfish, which can contain high levels of heavy metals.
- Consume probiotic foods. These include kefir, sauerkraut and yogurt, which help improve the health of the gut.
- Avoid processed foods and alcohol. These lower immune system functioning and make detoxification harder.
3. Anti-Parasitic Supplements
Certain supplements can help kill parasites, as well as rid of the body of other toxins, including:
- Paracomplete: A parasite cleanse supplement that includes thyme leaf, berberine sulfate, oregano, grapefruit seed extract and uva ursi leaf. These herbs have natural anti-parasitic, antifungal and antibacterial properties that have been used in traditional medicine systems for many years.
- Grapefruit seed extract (read directions for dosage recommendations, which vary depending on strength)
- Black walnut (250 milligrams three daily): An herb used historically for the treatment of parasites
- Garlic: Use both raw garlic in recipes and garlic essential oil
- Wormwood (200 milligrams three daily)
- Oregano oil (500 milligrams four times daily): Has antibacterial and anti-parasitic effects. You can also use oregano oil essential oil to improve detoxification.
- Olive leaf: If you have access to an olive tree, then you can use the leaves to make tea. Bake them at about 150 degrees until they’re dry, steep in hot water for 10 minutes, and drink several cups daily with raw honey or lemon.
- Clove oil (500 milligrams four times daily or four cups of tea made using clove essential oil)
4. Improve Detoxification Through Colonics
Tapeworm Risk Factors and Causes
The most common reason that humans become infected with tapeworms is eating undercooked meat from an infected animal or contaminated freshwater fish. (4) Although exposure to a tapeworm needs to occur in order for an infection to take place, certain risk factors might contribute to worsened tapeworm symptoms. These risk factors include:
- Drinking contaminated water. If you’ve ever been to another country, like China, India, Africa or Mexico, and drank the water, then felt sick afterward, there’s a chance you picked up a parasite.
- Imbalanced gut flora
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Having a weakened immune system
Here’s an overview of how a tapeworm parasitic infection develops:
- Tapeworms lay eggs that turn into tiny larva, and these larva can live inside the meat of animals, which humans then consume for food. After eating infected meat, larva are sometimes able to make their way through the person’s digestive tract into the intestines, where they survive off of other food becoming consumed.
- Other than eating infected meat, it’s less common but still possible to contract certain types of tapeworms from coming into contact with small amounts of another infected person’s stool. It’s believed that this happens with pork tapeworms but not with other worms found in fish or beef. As described above, egg-bearing secretions from pork tapeworms (called proglottids) are passed inside stool. For example, when food is prepared by an infected person and that person doesn’t properly wash his or her hands after going to the bathroom, tiny tapeworm eggs can make their way onto the food and contaminate it. The eggs can then hatch inside the next person’s intestines and survive.
- When untreated, human waste or animal waste carrying tapeworm eggs can be released into the environment and then ingested by another host.
- Animals (especially horses, cattle and pigs) commonly get tapeworms after grazing in pastures where contaminated runoff has entered or from drinking contaminated water.
- Fish can also become infected with tapeworms by eating small crustaceans that carry tapeworm eggs/cysts.
Tapeworm Infection Statistics and Facts
- Every year hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. become infected with parasites, although they usually have no idea. (5)
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, traveling to parts of Latin America, Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Asia can expose Americans to tapeworms and other parasitic infections that are then brought home, although they’re usually rarer in the U.S. (6)
- T. solium is the cause of 30 percent of epilepsy cases in many endemic areas where people and roaming pigs live in close proximity. More than 80 percent of the world’s 50 million people who are affected by epilepsy live in low- and lower-middle-income countries. (7)
- Taenia saginata and T. solium tapeworms are two common tapeworms found worldwide, particularly in Eastern Europe, Russia, Eastern Africa and Latin America.
- The number of new tapeworm infection cases in the U.S. each year is probably less than 1,000, but an exact number is not known due to many people never being diagnosed.
- The No. 1 place in the U.S. where tapeworms are found are those where cattle and people are concentrated, including in factory farms where meat is produced or urban areas where there’s poor sanitation.
- U.S. workers who work in feed lots are at the highest risk for tapeworm infections since they can be exposed to cattle feces. Restaurant workers who don’t wash their hands properly are also at risk.
- Around the world, underdeveloped communities with poor sanitation and countries where people eat raw or undercooked pork have the highest rates of tapeworm illness.
- In the U.S., tapeworm infections are highest among Latin American immigrants.
- Tapeworms affect the digestive system more than any other part of the body, although they can also cause fatigue, muscle aches and cognitive changes.
- Some tapeworms can can grow up to 25 meters long, or 82 feet, depending on the species. (8)
Conventional Treatment for Tapeworm Symptoms
If the tapeworm symptoms described above sound familiar to you, visit your doctor for a stool sample test and blood test. Stool samples can help identify the type of tapeworm that might be present, while blood tests indicate if an infection is causing complications by looking for signs of increased inflammation and high antibody levels.
Doctors also look for signs of a tapeworm infection using a stool sample by locating either segments of the worm itself or tiny eggs. If it’s suspected that larva have migrated out of the intestines and moved to another body part, your doctor might investigate whether or not cysts are present by performing a CT scan or MRI.
Once a tapeworm diagnoses has been made, doctors commonly use medications to help treat the infection. These can include:
- Antiparasitic drugs, including praziquantel
- Drugs to lower inflammation and complications, including NSAID pain relievers or corticosteroids, such as prednisone
- If other symptoms or complications have developed, such as nerve damage or digestive dysfunction, various other drugs and procedures might also be used, including diarrhea medications or vitamin B12 and iron supplements.
Tapeworm Precautions and Complications
Although it’s not very common, it’s possible for tapeworm symptoms to become very serious if a worm blocks someone’s intestines, causes deficiencies in key vitamins or minerals or causes larva to migrate out of the intestines and into other parts of the body where they form cysts.
Complications Due to Tapeworms:
- Sometimes larva, especially laid from tapeworms that come from pork meat, can move to the the liver, eyes, heart and brain, where they can cause damage. When cysts from tapeworms form in other parts of the body outside the GI tract, it’s called cysticercosis.
- Other times tapeworms might cause small cysts that can trigger complications like headaches, confusion, meninges, neurological symptoms, spinal problems and even seizures.
- Although it’s uncommon, tapeworm cysts sometimes develop in the eyes and can lead to visual problems or even blindness if untreated.
- Tapeworm infections caused from eating contaminated fish have also been associated with causing anemia, since the worms wind up consuming vitamin B12 and robbing their host. Vitamin B12 is necessary for red blood cell maturation and energy production, and therefore fatigue and weakness are very common.
- Always seek attention from a doctor if you suspect you might have a tapeworm to prevent complications from worsening.
Final Thoughts on Tapeworm Symptoms
- Tapeworm infections affect the intestines of humans and occur when people eat raw or undercooked, contaminated animal meat and fish.
- Tapeworms often don’t cause any noticeable symptoms at all but can cause digestive issues, fatigue, muscle aches, malabsorption, deficiencies and weight loss in some people.
- Risk factors for tapeworms include working near cattle or livestock, living in crowded areas with poor sanitation, and eating raw or undercooked meat and freshwater fish.
- Natural treatments for tapeworms include a parasitic cleanse, consuming supplements to help improve detoxification, and enemas or colonics.