Cysticercosis is an infectious disease caused by the Taenia solium, a tapeworm. The larvae of the Taenia solium enter the human body and form cysts called cysticerci. Neurocysticercosis describes the condition when cysticerci inhabit the brain.
The Taenia solium tapeworm is found all over the world, but Cysticercosis commonly occurs in impoverished areas lacking in good hygiene. In such areas, pigs roam freely and consume human excrement, making the location ripe for Cysticercosis. Countries where pork is not eaten have a reduced risk of Cysticercosis, however, infection can still happen to anyone.
Humans get Cysticercosis when eggs of the Taenia solium are consumed with pork. The eggs are expelled through excretion and poor hygiene can contaminate water, food, and various surfaces with the eggs of the parasite. Consumption of eggs then leads to infection. An individual who already has tapeworm can still get infected again. This is called autoinfection. The eggs hatch inside the human stomach and enter the intestine. The parasites travel in the blood and grow into cysticerci that inhabit the eyes, muscles, and brain.
The symptoms of Cysticercosis vary according to where the cysticerci reside in the body. When cysticerci inhabit the eyes, symptoms may include blurred and impaired vision. Your eyes may become infected and swell. Retinal detachment could occur as well. When cysticerci inhabit the muscles, symptoms are rare. However, patients report feeling bumps under the skin.
When cysticerci inhabit the brain or the spinal cord, it is known as Neurocysticercosis. Neurocysticercosis has varying symptoms according to the number of cysticerci and where exactly they are in the brain or spinal cord. Headaches and seizures tend to be typical symptoms of Neurocysticercosis. Other symptoms include difficulty with coordination, balance, swelling of the brain, difficulty concentrating, and confusion. Severe cases of Neurocysticercosis can result in sudden death.
It may take years for symptoms of Cysticercosis to manifest. Symptoms typically arise as cysts are dying inside the host body. Swelling of the brain can occur during this process. Most symptoms of Neurocysticercosis are consequences of the pressure from this swelling.
It is difficult to diagnose Cysticercosis, so several tests may be required by your doctor. Your doctor will need to know what your diet has been comprised of and whether or not you have been traveling. CT scans or an MRI may be required to examine the brain. Blood tests may be needed but are not always reliable.
Treatment for Cysticercosis entails a combination of anti-inflammatory medication along with anti-parasitic medication. At times, surgery may be required for cysticerci in the eyes or persistent cases that do not respond to medication. Surgery may also be used to reduce swelling in the brain.
Cases of Neurocysticercosis with only one lesion often does not require special treatment. Treatment is determined by the number of lesions, or cysticerci found. For more than one lesion, anti-parasitic treatment will be administered by your doctor. In some cases, a brain lesion may have calcified and will not need treatment because it means the cysticerci is dead. With treatment or after an appropriate amount of time passes, cysticerci will die and the lesions will grow smaller. Swelling will be reduced and more often than not, symptoms will subside.
Cysticercosis cannot be spread from contact with infected individuals. However, an infected individual can expel tapeworm eggs in excrement, which can infect other people. You can be tested for intestinal tapeworms though it may require multiple stool samples over a few days.
Prevention of Cysticercosis entails avoiding contaminated pork. Do not eat undercooked or raw meat of any kind. Properly and regularly wash your hands when handling food or traveling. If you are eating raw fruits and vegetables, wash them and peel them. Especially in developing countries, drink only bottled water. If bottled water is unavailable, boil water for at least a minute or stick to carbonated drinks in bottles or cans. Avoid fountains and ice in drinks. You can also purchase absolute 1 micron or less filters from camping supply stores. When used in combination with iodine tablets, such filters can be effective.