How to Avoid Tapeworms and Other Parasites
These 6 nasty critters may be closer than you think, but you can protect yourself.
Cook your food, don’t handle cat feces, and remember to wash your spinach!
Who wants to hear about roundworms, tapeworms, and other tiny critters that live in your food and water? Based on recent reports to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), countries in Asia and Latin America are seeing an unusual rise in cases involving salmon tapeworms. Before you give up your ceviche and sashimi, however, keep in mind that there are other more damaging parasites you need to be worried about.
Here’s a list of the six most common sources of parasites in the U.S., and how to protect yourself.
1. Drinking water
The two most common parasites in this country, according to CDC data, are frequently found in contaminated water: Giardia, which infects 2 million people every year, and Cryptosporidium, which infects 300,000 annually. Both inflict diarrheal diseases and are contracted by coming into contact with infected stools, whether through drinking water or in swimming pools or other recreational water facilities. Another similar parasite, Cyclospora, is contracted the same way but is less common than the other two.
How to protect yourself: Pay attention to bulletins about local drinking water quality, and always follow “boil water” orders when you hear about them. Don’t swallow water at swimming pools (and do your part by always bathing before visiting one).
2. Undercooked meat
Raw or undercooked meat, especially pork, lamb, or venison, is a frequent source of the third most common parasite seen in this country, Toxoplasma. It’s estimated that 60 million people carry the parasite, of whom 1.5 million get infected every year. It’s also the third-leading cause of death from foodborne illness, but most people who are infected aren’t even aware of it. Those who do notice complain of flulike symptoms, such as muscle aches or swollen lymph nodes that last for a month or more. You can also have “ocular toxoplasmosis,” characterized by blurry vision and eye pain.
Undercooked pork is also where people contract Trichinella parasites, roundworms that live in the muscle tissue of meat-eating animals, and Taenia, a tapeworm that can grow up to 23 feet long. There aren’t any hard figures for tapeworm infections in the U.S., but Taenia is one of the most common culprits, according to the CDC. Trichinosis, the disease caused by Trichinella, is pretty rare in the U.S., though, and only infects an average of 12 people every year.
How to protect yourself: Cooking your pork, lamb, and venison to an internal temperature of 160 degrees should kill off any wrigglies inside the meat. And don’t eat bear, cougar, foxes, dog, wolf, horse, seal, or walrus meat—they all harbor Trichinella, too.
3. Unwashed produce
The same parasites that infect your drinking water can infect your produce, too. They’re spread by contaminated water used to irrigate the crops. While E. coli bacteria usually cause the most publicized cases of contaminated crops, Giardia and Cryptosporidium can also be found in produce. The roundworm Ascaris, the most common source of human worm infections, has been found on unwashed lettuce and other kinds of produce irrigated with water contaminated by human or pig feces. It isn’t common in the U.S., but a few cases have been reported in rural areas.
How to protect yourself: Wash your hands before handling fruits and vegetables, and wash your produce with a solution of 1 part vinegar and 9 parts water to kill germs.
4. Undercooked salmon
That tasty piece of raw sushi on your plate may be harboring another kind of tapeworm, Diphylobothrium, also called the “salmon tapeworm.” While infections of this type are rare in the U.S., they’ve been on the rise in Asia and Latin America, where raw sushi and ceviche are eaten regularly. In Japan, the number of cases went from virtually zero in the late nineties to 15 per year in 2008, and in Brazil, there was one case of Diphylobothrium infection between 1998 and 2003 but 18 between 2004 and 2005.
How to protect yourself: A spokesperson from the CDC told us that sushi chefs are taught to recognize infected fish and that eating at a high-quality sushi restaurant shouldn’t put you at risk. That being said, you might want to stick with cooked-fish sushi; just be sure to buy species that are responsibly harvested that don’t contain high levels of environmental pollutants like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). (Find the best choices at http://www.seafoodwatch.org.)
5. Your cat
Unless you eat your cat, you won’t be exposed to parasites like Trichinella, but cleaning up after him may expose you to Toxoplasma, which lives in cat feces. Like people, cats may not exhibit symptoms of a toxoplasmosis infection, so it’s important to take precautions whenever you have to change your cat’s litter box. Fortunately, the infection will go away on its own in most cases, and doesn’t require medical treatment.
How to protect yourself: Change the litter box regularly, and wash your hands with soap and water immediately afterwards (it also helps to wear gloves). If you can’t keep your cat indoors, keep sandboxes covered and wash your hands after gardening or handling soil that could be contaminated with cat poop. Feed cats high-quality cat food that doesn’t contain any raw or undercooked meat. And if you’re pregnant, stay away from litter boxes.
6. Your cousin who’s always borrowing money.
Perhaps the most difficult parasite to get rid of, financially dependent relatives can make you feel like there’s a tapeworm living in your bank account. Most financial advisors will tell you that lending money to family members is a bad idea on all fronts, but considering our current economic climate, sympathy may trump good judgment. If you have to do it, here are a few tips:
• Be clear that you expect to get paid back. Family loans may inadvertently turn into gifts, unless you set ground rules from the get-go. Set up a pay schedule that defines how much you expect at what time of the month.
• Draw up a contract. Look for financial institutions online to find one that can help facilitate small personal loans. Making the loan more formal can make your relative more inclined to pay it back, and some of these agencies can set up automatic withdrawals, helping underscore the expectation that you expect a payback.
• Don’t lend money you can’t afford to lose. You might feel inclined to pass along a few hundred bucks to a cousin in need, but if you’re dipping into your own rainy-day fund, you could end up the loser in the deal if you’re later hit by an unexpected crisis.