What is echinococcosis?

Echinococcosis is a type of infection caused by parasites. It occurs when you eat food or water that is contaminated with eggs of the Echinococcus. This is a microscopic tapeworm that is found in dogs, sheep, other livestock, and wild animals.

The tapeworm settles in your organs, such as your lungs, liver, or brain. It causes large cysts to form over time. There are two main forms of the infection: cystic echinococcosis (known as hydatid disease) and alveolar echinococcosis. Although infections in humans are rare, they can be serious.

Symptoms of echinococcosis

Echinococcosis may not produce symptoms for up to 10 or 20 years. This is because the cysts grow slowly. Symptoms can include:

  • stomach pain
  • chest pain
  • lasting cough
  • unplanned weight loss
  • weakness
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • fever
  • bloody stools
  • headaches
  • seizures.

What causes echinococcosis?

The disease can be found all over the world. Primarily, it occurs in places where humans are in close contact with livestock or dogs. In the United States, echinococcosis mostly is found in the Southwest and Alaska.

Infected animals, such as dogs or sheep, pass the disease to humans. We can get it directly by consuming food or drink contaminated with feces. Or we can get it indirectly by playing with or handling infected animals.

How is echinococcosis diagnosed?

First, the doctor will review your symptoms and do an exam. Second, they will perform tests to check for cysts. An X-ray often finds the cysts. The doctor also can do a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. If the doctor finds cysts, they may do a biopsy. This involves using a thin needle to puncture the cyst. Then, the doctor collects and tests fluid from the cyst to check for the echinococcosis infection.

Can echinococcosis be prevented or avoided?

Be careful if you live in an area near livestock and/or you have contact with dogs. There are things you can do to help prevent echinococcosis.

  • Give your dogs routine deworming treatments to remove and prevent tapeworms.
  • Consider giving vaccines to your sheep.
  • Always wash your hands after handling animals.
  • Fence in your house or garden to keep out wild animals.
  • Avoid contact with stray dogs and wild animals.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating them.

Echinococcosis treatment

Treatment for echinococcosis varies. It depends on your symptoms and the location of cysts. Drugs that treat infections cause by worms are called anthelmintics.

The doctor can kill the tapeworm using injections. Once the tapeworm is gone, you may need to take medicine to keep it from coming back. Another form of treatment is injections to remove the cysts. Severe cases may require surgery to remove the cysts.

Living with echinococcosis

It is important to get treatment for echinococcosis once you start having symptoms. If left untreated, you could die from the disease.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Should I wear gloves when playing with my dog or picking up feces?
  • Is it okay to have my dog sleep with me?
  • How often should I give my dog deworming treatments?
  • I work with livestock. Should I be tested for echinococcosis?
  • Is echinococcosis contagious among humans?
  • What is the best treatment for me?
  • How long does treatment last and what are the side effects?
  • If I’m cured, could my echinococcosis come back?
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