Fish Tapeworm Infection (Diphyllobothriasis)

Written by Brian Krans | Published on September 6, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What Is a Fish Tapeworm Infection?

A fish tapeworm infection occurs when a person eats raw or undercooked fish that is contaminated with the parasite Diphyllobothrium latum. The parasite is more commonly known as the fish tapeworm.

This type of tapeworm grows in hosts, such as small organisms in the water and large mammals that eat raw fish. It is passed through the feces of animals. A person becomes infected after ingesting improperly prepared freshwater fish that contains tapeworm cysts.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), this type of virus is most common in areas where people eat raw or undercooked fish from lakes and rivers. Locations include Eastern Europe, Scandinavian countries, North and South America, and some Asian countries. This may also be common in parts of Africa where freshwater fish are eaten (NCBI, 2011).

What Causes a Fish Tapeworm Infection?

A fish tapeworm infection occurs when a person eats contaminated, undercooked or raw fish. The fish must be contaminated with fish tape larvae, which then grows in the intestines. It takes between three to six weeks before the larvae are fully grown. An adult tapeworm can grow up to 30 feet long. It is the largest parasite to affect humans.

The journal Emerging Infectious Diseases published a report that examined the spread of fish tapeworm infections in Brazil. Infections were linked to contaminated salmon farmed at aquaculture sites in Chile. The transportation of the contaminated fish from Chile brought the infection to Brazil, a country that had not seen fish tapeworms before.

The report highlighted how fish farming can spread the infection from one area to another. The cases cited in the report all stemmed from people eating salmon sushi (Cabello, 2007).

Fish tapeworms are more common in developing countries because of sanitation, sewer, and drinking water issues. Water contaminated with human or animal waste could very likely contain tapeworms.

Symptoms of a Fish Tapeworm Infection

Fish tapeworm infections rarely present noticeable symptoms. Tapeworms are most often discovered when people notice eggs or segments of the tapeworm in stool.

Symptoms could include:

  • diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • stomach cramps
  • stomach pain
  • unintended weight loss
  • weakness

How Is a Fish Tapeworm Infection Diagnosed?

Your doctor may order a blood test to identify the presence of a parasite. However, this type of infection is most often diagnosed by examining a person’s stool for parasites, worm segments, and eggs.

Treating a Fish Tapeworm Infection

Fish tapeworm infections are usually unnoticeable, but you probably don’t want tapeworms wiggling around inside your guts. No one likes a freeloader.

Thankfully, fish tapeworm infections can be treated with a single dose of medication without any lasting problems.

There are two main treatments for tapeworm infections: praziquanta and niclosamide.

Praziquantal (Bilitricide) is used to treat different kinds of worm infections. It causes severe spasms in the worm’s muscles so it can be passed through the stool.

Niclosamide is prescribed specifically for tapeworm infections and kills the worm on contact. The dead worm is later passed through the stool.

Treatment is important because fish tapeworm infections can cause serious problems, such as anemia or intestinal blockage (NCBI, 2011).

Tips to Prevent Fish Tapeworm Infection

Fish tapeworm infections can be easily prevented using the following guidelines:

  • Cook fish at a temperature of 130 degrees F (54 degrees C) for five minutes.
  • Freeze fish below 14 degrees F (-10 degrees C).
  • Follow proper food safety handling, such as washing hands and avoid cross-contamination with raw fish and fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid contact with any animal known to be infected with a tapeworm.
  • Exercise caution when traveling to developing countries.
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