A liver fluke is a parasitic worm. Infections in humans usually occur after eating contaminated raw or undercooked freshwater fish or watercress. After liver flukes have been ingested, they travel from your intestines to your bile ducts in your liver where they then live and grow.
Although most infected individuals don’t show any symptoms, sometimes symptoms arise related to the biliary system. In rare cases, long-term complications can also develop.
Liver fluke infections aren’t common in the United States, but they do occur. Your risk of infection increases if you travel to parts of the world where the parasites are widespread.
Symptoms and side effects
In the short term, a liver fluke infection can bring about symptoms such as:
There are also some rare complications associated with heavy liver fluke infections. These include stone formation, recurrent infections of the biliary system, and cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer).
The adult parasites settle in the small bile ducts and can live there for 20 to 30 years. The long-lived flukes can cause long-lasting chronic inflammation of the bile ducts, which often leads to further problems.
Four to six months after they settle in the bile ducts, the adult flukes start producing eggs, which are then passed out into the intestines.
It’s important to know that liver fluke infection can be easily prevented.
Ensuring that freshwater fish and watercress are thoroughly cooked before consuming them is the most effective way to prevent a liver fluke infection.
People who are travelling to areas with poor sanitation should certainly avoid food and water that could potentially be contaminated with the parasites. This is because there currently is no vaccine available to prevent liver fluke infections.
Medication or surgery
It’s possible to eradicate liver flukes completely. An infection will usually be treated with a drug called triclabendazole. It’s given orally, usually in one or two doses, and most people respond well to this treatment.
A short course of corticosteroids is sometimes prescribed for acute phases with severe symptoms.
Surgery is sometimes required for related long-term complications like cholangitis (infection of the bile duct).
Some alternative therapy practitioners recommend taking golden seal for parasitic infections, as well as parasite cleanses and colonic irrigation.
The symptoms of a liver fluke infection can also be treated using traditional methods. For example, you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol) to relieve abdominal pain and to reduce fever. Anti-nausea medications can reduce nausea and vomiting.
However, these methods don’t treat the root cause of the problem. So it’s always a better course of action to have your liver fluke infection diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.
Has it passed?
If you’re symptomatic, you may find that your symptoms pass. This may leave you wondering if your liver fluke infection has cleared. The only sure way to tell is to revisit your doctor, who can test your stool to see if liver fluke eggs are present.
Liver flukes are common in certain parts of the world. People from these areas are, of course, at a higher risk of infection. People who travel to these areas are also at risk. Anyone who has a recent history of eating raw or undercooked fish or watercress particularly while in these areas should be tested as a matter of routine.
Although it isn’t possible for liver fluke infections to be passed from human to human, family members may be at risk of infection simply due to eating the same food.
The outlook for individuals who contract a liver fluke infection is extremely good. Many people can live with liver fluke infections their entire lives and never experience a symptom or develop a complication. When symptoms do occur, they are always treatable and often curable.
A liver fluke infection in itself can never be fatal. However, in rare cases it’s possible for the infection to lead to further complications such as infections of the biliary system, the formation of stones, and bile duct cancer.
Cholangiocarcinoma is the most severe complication that can develop as a result of a liver fluke infection. In the rare event that this should occur, the 5-year survival rate for this form of cancer ranges from 20 to 50 percent if the cancer is caught early.
Early detection of liver fluke infections is imperative to prevent complications from arising. Should you experience symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible for a stool test. In endemic areas, a screening test is useful.