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What is Cysticercosis?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cysticercosis is an infection that results from ingesting a type of tapeworm, Taenia solium. As tapeworm eggs hatch and mature inside a person, they migrate from the gastrointestinal tract to muscle and organ tissue. Cysticercosis can lead to the development of lesions in body tissue that are visible in diagnostic imaging scans. Most cases do not cause noticeable symptoms, though an infection that reaches the brain can lead to seizures, vision problems, and permanent brain damage. Doctors usually treat cysticercosis with oral medications to destroy the parasites and steroids to reduce organ inflammation.

Most cases of cysticercosis arise when people eat undercooked pork or unwashed vegetables that are grown in soil contaminated with pig feces. The condition is most common in underdeveloped countries and places where there are few restrictions on safe farming and ranching practices. After eggs are ingested, they attach to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, hatch into larvae, and move to other parts of the body.

Cysticercosis gets its name from the cysts that larvae create as they mature into adult tapeworms. Cysts most commonly appear in muscle and fat tissue within the body, and they do not usually cause physical symptoms. It is possible for larvae to migrate to the eyes, where they can cause blurry vision, and retinal damage that can lead to blindness. Tapeworms that reach the spinal cord or brain result in a condition called neurocysticercosis, and can cause chronic headaches, nausea, vomiting, and seizures. Neurocysticercosis is considered an emergency condition and immediate medical care is needed to prevent permanent nervous system damage.

A doctor can check for cysts in the brain and other parts of the body by taking computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Positive CT and MRI results plainly show lesions and surrounding inflammation in body tissue. Blood and stool samples are usually collected so laboratory scientists can confirm the presence of pork tapeworms.

Treatment for cysticercosis depends on the severity of symptoms and the location of cysts. Tapeworms in muscles or the gastrointestinal tract usually respond to oral medications called anthelminthics. If inflammation of the heart or other internal organs is present, a doctor may administer oral or intravenous steroids to reduce swelling. Neurocysticercosis often requires hospitalization so doctors can monitor symptoms and ensure vital signs remain stable. Anticonvulsant medications are commonly given to help prevent seizures. With immediate treatment, most patients are able to recover without suffering permanent health problems.

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