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Echinococcus is an infection caused by a parasitic tapeworm from the Echinococcus genus. A few different types of tapeworms can cause echinococcus in humans, including: E. granulosus, E. multilocularis, and E. vogeli. In some cases, the organs affected depend on which type of tapeworm has caused your infection.
The infection is rare in the United States. It occurs more often in the Mediterranean, Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. If left untreated, it can be fatal. With treatment, your outlook may be good.
Your symptoms will vary depending on which organs are affected. According to Stanford University:
The infection affects the liver in about 75 percent of people who contract it. Symptoms may include pain in your abdomen and the formation of cysts on your liver.
The infection affects the lungs in about 22 percent of people who contract it. Respiratory symptoms may include chest pain and coughing up bloody mucus.
Other areas of your body can also be affected, including your skin, spleen, or kidneys.
If a parasitic tapeworm infects you, echinococcus will develop. The parasite enters a host, which is usually an animal, such as a dog, sheep, or goat. The worm lives in the bowels of the animal and releases its eggs into the animal’s feces.
You’re most likely to contract the infection when you eat food that has been contaminated with animal feces. After eating contaminated food, the incubation period is usually a few months long.
This means it takes a few months before symptoms appear. Certain strains of the parasite can have a longer incubation period that may last up to a few years.
One risk factor for contracting the parasite is exposure to the feces of dogs, cattle, pigs, or sheep. For example, if you work on a farm with these animals, you may be at higher risk.
Cases of the infection have been reported in the United States, but the risk is higher in countries where the parasite is more common.
Another risk factor is taking in food or water contaminated with the tapeworm eggs.
Your doctor may ask you about your symptoms and perform medical tests to diagnose your infection. For example, they may use a chest X-ray to rule out other types of infection. Your doctor may also use an abdominal MRI or CT scan to make their diagnosis.
Because the incubation period can be long, echinococcus parasites may be discovered while your doctor is performing medical tests for other reasons.
Certain medications can destroy the parasite. In some cases, your doctor may also recommend surgery. Your specific treatment plan will depend on the severity of your symptoms, as well as the organs affected.
They may also recommend taking anti-inflammatory medication to treat inflammation of your organs caused by the parasite. Sometimes chemotherapy medications can be used to treat organ cysts caused by the parasite.
In some instances, your doctor may recommend surgery to treat cysts caused by the infection. If the infection has affected your brain and fluid has accumulated there, your doctor may also recommend surgery to install a shunt. This device is used to drain fluid from your brain.
Your outlook depends on the extent of your infection and the organs affected. In some instances, cysts may rupture, which can be life threatening. But if your doctor is able to effectively treat the cysts, your outlook may be good.
There are several different steps you can take to prevent an echinococcus infection. In areas of the world where the parasite is common, education can help.
Removing the worms from dogs can help stop the spread of infection. Correct disposal of animal feces can reduce exposure to tapeworm eggs.
Proper handling of cattle at farms and slaughterhouses is also essential. This includes enforcing meat inspection procedures. Avoiding undercooked or raw beef, pork, and fish can also help you avoid echinococcus.
Washing fruits and vegetables, especially in areas where the tapeworm is common, may help prevent infection.
Written by: MaryAnn DePietro
Medically reviewed on: Jun 02, 2016: Judi Marcin, MD
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