What to know about tapeworms, the parasites that comes from eating raw or undercooked foods

After months of a mysterious illness, NHL prospect Carson Meyer discovered a 25-inch tapeworm coming out of his body.

Meyer had spent nearly a year feeling constantly fatigued and lacking an appetite — so while the orange tapeworm with a head, neck and 50 segments left him “absolutely freaking out,” it was also a relief to finally identify the cause of his sickness.

The future Columbus Blue Jackets player learned that he developed the tapeworm from eating undercooked or raw fish or meat, which Dr. Travis Stork, ER physician, host of The Doctors and member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad, warns people against to avoid a similar fate.

“A person can become infected by consuming water or food that is contaminated with tapeworm eggs or larvae, particularly raw or undercooked fish or meat,” Dr. Stork, who did not treat Meyer, explains. “Once ingested, the eggs hatch and live in your intestines. The tapeworm’s head adheres to the intestine wall and the segments of the body, called proglottids, grow as it feeds off the food the host is digesting. Yes, I know, not pleasant to think about!”

Tapeworm, artwork
A tapeworm
| Credit: Getty

He says that one of the hazards of tapeworms is that they can go undetected for months, as in Meyer’s case.

“Many people with tapeworm don’t show any symptoms and are generally unaware of their infection — the only way they realize they have a tapeworm is if segments appear in bowel movements,” Dr. Stork says. “As gross as this sounds, if you’re not sure what you are seeing is a tapeworm, take a picture of your bowel movement to show your doctor. Luckily, the majority of intestinal tapeworm infections are a nuisance and not a serious health threat.”

Even if a tapeworm is not yet visible, a doctor can check stool samples for parts of larvae or eggs. From there, medication will clear up the parasite.

“Sometimes the tapeworm will exit your body on its own, but if a doctor determines you are infected, they will prescribe anti-parasitic oral medications,” Dr. Stork explains. “Once killed, the dead tapeworm will usually come out in your stool. Since the medication only kills eggs and not live larvae, be careful not to re-infect yourself!”

Dr. Stork says this doesn’t mean you have to swear off raw foods forever, but he advises people to find good producers.

“The biggest risk factors for a tapeworm infection include consuming raw or undercooked meats like pork and beef or fish. Sadly, this includes one of my favorites — sushi. But for the record, I still eat it regularly,” he says. “Having said that, the only way to ensure you don’t contract a tapeworm is to stick to fully cooked meat and fish products — and if you choose raw, know your source.”

And that includes keeping an eye on the news. In 2017, salmon caught in Alaska was found to have tapeworms.

“Previously, the parasite was confined to fish from Asia, but as recently as January of 2018, cases of contracting tapeworm from raw Alaskan salmon have been reported — The Doctors recently featured a man who ended up with a five-foot tapeworm due to his daily salmon sashimi habit,” Dr. Stork says. “Stick to Atlantic fish — they are usually less likely to carry parasites than Pacific fish.”