A few years ago, my five year old called out to me from the toilet complaining that his bum was itchy. I did the standard parent thing, and presumed that he just hadn’t wiped properly, but when I took a closer look, he was clean, with an itchy red rash. I went and looked at his poo, and felt a chill run down my spine. Worms.
This might be news to some people: humans can get worms. It’s not a particularly enviable position in which to find yourself, but it is very possible, even in a developed country like Australia. And the worst part? You might not even know you’ve got one! Let me get on the front food by addressing five of your most burning questions:
First question: How might I get infected with worms???
There are a number of ways, all of which can be easily avoided using a mix of basic hygiene and common sense. That said, these things can creep in somehow, so here are some things you can do to avoid infection
- Avoid contact with people who have a worm infection. Easier said than done, right? You might get on a bus and grab a handle. Bang! Worms. If COVID has done any good (and believe me, it hasn’t), it is the renewed interest in hand sanitiser and general handwashing. Keep a small bottle of hand sani at the ready, and you will be protecting yourself against COVID and worms.
- Avoid walking barefoot on soil with worm eggs in it. This is not referring to the worms that live in your garden, we are talking about the bacterial kind only. In Australia, this is less of a problem as our sewerage systems are pretty great. But it is a timely reminder to stay out of the ocean after heavy rain as the sewerage treatment can sometimes overflow.
- Avoid food or water with worm eggs. Again, difficult to know. But you can ensure that none of your food has been contaminated, left out of the fridge for too long. Australia’s food health safety laws are such that you can be confident dining out anywhere in the country. It is something to be aware of if you are travelling abroad. When you are overseas, avoid undercooked beef, pork or freshwater fish. I will often opt for somewhere between ‘well done’ and ‘charred’ when travelling.
Your second question: How would I know if I have become infected by worms?
Your common symptoms include:
- Pain in your abdominals
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea
- Bloating and gas
- Feeling tired
- Losing weight for no reason
- Dysentery. This is when there is blood and mucus in diarrhoea
- Rashes around the rectum or vulva which are red and very itchy
On occasion, a worm might actually be visible in your poo. If you suspect you might have a worm infection, it is worth checking the poo. Sometimes, the worms might be alive and moving. Other times, you might find pieces of worms littered throughout.
Third question: What does a worm infection actually mean?
Well, this ain’t pretty, but they are parasites that live off the living host. Their goal is to get inside you and live off the nutrients you are putting into your body. Some people live for years without realising that they have a parasitic worm living inside them, and just write off the negative effect the worm has on their body as just the wear and tear of life. Call me old fashioned, but I’d rather know and get rid of them where possible.
Fourth question: What kinds of worms am I facing here?
In Australia, there are five common types of worms which could potentially take up residence in your body.
These are sometimes called pinworms because the females have a long pin-like tail. These little buggers grow between 5mm and 13mm, and bury their heads into the intestinal wall and anus. Children are most susceptible to threadworms, as they tend to touch anything, regardless of how gross it might be. They might complain of feeling a bit sick, without any real specificity.
Here’s a fact which will keep you up at night. Tapeworms can live for up to 30 years in the one host. They can actually leave your intestines and form larval cysts in other major organs. And worst of all, there are not always symptoms that you have an infection at all. Because it can spread to other organs, sometimes they can masquerade as other medical conditions. Not fun.
These are named for their whip-like shape. They often show up in warmer, more temperate areas. They can go as far as causing rectal prolapse; when the rectum droops out of the anus. For children, these worms can even cause an impairment in cognitive development.
Hookworms live in the small intestine, and can enter through your skin. The most serious side effect of hookworm is the loss of blood which can lead to anaemia. The good news is, they are very treatable.
Which leads me to your fifth question: What can I do if I end up with a worm infection?
You will only be able to diagnose this with great confidence after a blood test and a stool sample. 99% of the time, a drug called combantrin will deal with the worm in a timely manner. combantrin is available over the counter, so the moment you are diagnosed with an infection, you can be mounting a defence straight away. Combantrin contains Pyrantel Embonate or Mebendazole, both of which are toxic to worms. For those more severe infections, anything from anthelmintic drugs to surgery might be required to rid yourself of those pesky blighters.
So there you have it. Five questions you didn’t know you needed to ask have just been answered. The more you know…