Even though we usually associate them with our pets, the truth is that even humans can catch intestinal worms. In Australia, the most common type of intestinal worms is the threadworm. Also known as pinworms, threadworms are tiny white parasites that can populate the large intestine and lay eggs around the bottom. The presence of eggs around the bottom often causes an itch that can lead to scratching. Luckily, intestinal worms are relatively harmless and easily treated.
How You Catch Intestinal Worms?
Intestinal worms are mainly spread by fecal contamination from people with a worm infection. They can also be caught from food. Some common ways you can get infected include:
- Touching objects or surfaces with worm eggs on them – If a person with worms doesn’t wash their hands;
- Touching soil or swallowing food or water with worm eggs in it – Mainly a risk in parts of the world without modern toilets or sewage systems;
- Walking barefoot on soil containing worms – Also a risk in parts of the world without modern toilets or sewage systems;
- Eating raw or uncooked beef, pork or freshwater fish (like trout or salmon) containing baby worms – More common in parts of the world with poor food hygiene standards
What Are the Symptoms?
Threadworms look like small threads of white cotton, hence the name. They attach themselves to the lining of the large intestine and can grow up to 13 millimetres long. Mature worms can sometimes be seen in feces or eggs may adhere to the skin around the anus. Threadworm infections are often asymptomatic. When symptoms do occur they can include an itchy bottom (particularly at night), reduced appetite and feeling mildly unwell or irritable. In young girls, inflammation may occur around the vagina.
How Are Intestinal Worms Diagnosed?
If you have any of the above symptoms, and especially if you’ve travelled out of the country recently, you should schedule a visit to your health care practitioner. He/she may then carry out an examination of your stool. Another test is the “Scotch tape” test. It involves applying tape to the anus several times in order to retrieve worm eggs, which can then be identified under a microscope.
In case that worms or eggs are not detected, your health care practitioner may carry out a blood test to look for antibodies that the body produces when it’s infected with a parasite. Depending on the extent or location of disease suspected, your practitioner may also take an X-ray or use imaging tests.
How to Treat Intestinal Worms?
As I’ve mentioned, this infection can be easily treated with worm tablets. The most common worm tablets involve one of these ingredients: pyrantel, albendazole and mebendazole. All of these worm medications are equally effective for threadworm and can be bought OTC, with albendazole requiring a medical prescription.
Treatment usually involves a single dose of medicine for the infected person. It one of the members of the family has an intestinal worm infection, its best for all to be treated to avoid re-infestation. On the same day, as you take the medicine, you should wash your clothes, pyjamas, sheets and pillowcases in hot water. Disinfect the toilet seat with antiseptic cleaner and clean door handles and taps.
Everyone in the family should shower both the night the medication is taken as well as the next morning to wash away any eggs that may have been laid.
Note that treating intestinal worms doesn’t always prevent reinfection, so make sure that all family members are treated all the same time and that all of you are careful with hygiene such as daily showering and washing hands. Keep all of your fingernails short and encourage everyone not to scratch.
What Happens When You Take a Worming Tablet?
Worm tablets are normally free from side-effects although some minor stomach upset may be possible if you are carrying a large number of worms. Most worm medicines used to treat worm infections kill the parasites by either starving them or paralysing them. Albendazole, mebendazole and tiabendazole work by preventing the worms from absorbing the sugars worms need to survive. These medicines kill the worms but not the eggs. Ivermectin and praziquantel, on the other hand, work by paralysing the worms in the gut (intestine). This allows them to be easily dislodged and removed from the gut in the stools.
How Long Do Worming Tablets Take to Work?
Worm medicines should begin to work right away, but it may take several days to kill all the worms. It’s necessary that you take the whole course of medicine that has been prescribed. Don’t stop early. If you take a single dose of the medicine, you may need to take another single dose two weeks later to prevent re-infection. Your doctor will give you advice about this.
How to Prevent Intestinal Worms?
While it isn’t always possible to prevent intestinal worms, there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk. Maintaining good hygiene is one of them. Make sure to wash your hands regularly, particularly after going to the bathroom and before mealtimes. Bathroom and kitchen surfaces should be kept clean. Children should be encouraged not to scratch the affected area around their anus or vagina to help prevent reinfection and reduce the risk of spreading it to others.