What Is a Whipworm Infection?

A whipworm infection, also known as trichuriasis, is an infection of the large intestine caused by a parasite called Trichuris trichiura. This parasite is commonly known as a “whipworm” because it resembles a whip.

A whipworm infection can develop after ingesting water or dirt contaminated with feces containing whipworm parasites. Anyone who has come into contact with contaminated feces can also contract a whipworm infection. The infection most often occurs in children. It is also more common in people who live in regions with hot, humid climates and in areas with poor hygiene and sanitation.

Approximately 600 to 800 million people around the world have a whipworm infection. This type of infection can also occur in animals, including cats and dogs.

A whipworm infection can cause a variety of symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. They may include the following:

  • bloody diarrhea
  • painful or frequent defecation
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • headaches
  • sudden and unexpected weight loss
  • fecal incontinence, or the inability to control defecation

A whipworm infection is caused by a parasite called Trichuris trichiura. This parasite is also known as a “whipworm” because it is shaped like a whip. It has a thick section on one end that resembles the whip handle, and a narrow section on the other end that looks like the whip.

People typically get whipworm infections after consuming dirt or water contaminated with feces containing whipworm parasites or their eggs. Whipworm eggs can get into the soil when contaminated feces are used in fertilizers or when an infected person or animal defecates outside.

Someone might unknowingly ingest the whipworm parasites or their eggs when they:

  • touch the dirt and then put their hands or fingers in or near their mouth
  • eat fruits or vegetables that haven’t been thoroughly washed, cooked, or peeled

Once they reach the small intestine, whipworm eggs hatch and release larvae. When the larvae mature, the adult worms live in the large intestine. The female worms usually begin to deposit eggs about two months later. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the females shed between 3,000 and 20,000 eggs per day.

A whipworm infection can occur in anyone. However, people may be more likely to contract a whipworm infection if they:

  • live in a region with a hot, humid climate
  • live in an area with poor sanitation and hygiene practices
  • work in an industry where they come into contact with soil that contains manure
  • eat raw vegetables that are grown in soil fertilized with manure

Children also have a higher risk of getting a whipworm infection. They often play outdoors and might not wash their hands thoroughly before eating.

To diagnose a whipworm infection, your doctor will order a stool test. You will be required to give a sample of your feces to a lab for testing. The stool test can determine whether there are whipworms or whipworm eggs in your intestines and feces.

This type of test shouldn’t cause any discomfort or pain. Your doctor will give you a sterile container and a kit containing plastic wrap and special bathroom tissue. Place the plastic wrap loosely over the toilet bowl and make sure it’s held in place by the toilet seat. After you have a bowel movement, use the special tissue to put the stool into the container. For infants, the diaper can be lined with the plastic wrap to collect the sample. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after the test.

The sample will be sent to a lab, where it will be analyzed under a microscope for the presence of whipworms and their eggs.

The most common and effective treatment for a whipworm infection is an antiparasitic medication, such as albendazole and mebendazole. This type of medication gets rid of any whipworms and whipworm eggs in the body. The medication usually needs to be taken for one to three days. Side effects are minimal.

Once your symptoms subside, your doctor may want to perform another stool test to make sure the infection is gone.

Most people who receive treatment for a whipworm infection make a full recovery. When left untreated, however, the infection can become severe and cause complications. These include:

  • delayed growth or cognitive development
  • infections in the colon and appendix
  • rectal prolapse, which occurs when a section of the large intestine protrudes from the anus
  • anemia, which occurs when the number of healthy red blood cells drops too low

To reduce your risk of contracting a whipworm infection, you should:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly, especially before handling food.
  • Wash, peel, or cook foods thoroughly before eating them.
  • Teach children not to eat soil and to wash their hands after playing outdoors.
  • Boil or purify drinking water that may be contaminated.
  • Avoid contact with soil contaminated with fecal matter.
  • Use caution around animal feces and clean up fecal matter when possible.
  • Confine livestock, such as pigs, into pens. These enclosures should be thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis.
  • Keep the grass cut short in areas where dogs or cats regularly defecate.

The spread of whipworm can be prevented in high-risk areas by installing effective sewage disposal systems.