Trichinosis is a disease caused by a roundworm (nematode) called Trichinella spiralis. An individual worm of this species is called a trichina, from the Greek word meaning "hairlike." Trichinae can be readily avoided by proper handling and cooking of certain meats, particularly pork products.
The life cycle of T. spiralis includes several different stages. The adult trichina lives in the intestinal lining of such meat-eating animals as swine, bears, walrus, and rodents. After mating, the male worm dies while the female goes on to produce the offspring.
Roundworms have a stage of development called the embryonic stage, which in many species occurs after birth. In trichinae, however, this embryonic stage occurs within the uterus of the female, so that the offspring which are ultimately discharged into the host's intestinal lining are in the larval second stage of life. These larvae-- about 1500 from each female worm-- travel through the circulatory system to the heart, then through the blood vessels leading to striated muscle (the muscle of the skeletal system and the heart). Most larvae that cannot find suitable locations in striated muscle will die.
Those larvae that reach striated muscle will grow to a length of about one millimeter, coil themselves, and enclose themselves within a protective wall called a cyst. This process is referred to as encysting. The worms in the cysts can live for up to ten years in this form.
A pig which has been infected with T. spiralis, then, has thousands of cysts lying dormant within its muscles-- the very muscles that humans look forward to consuming in the form of pork chops, ham, barbecued ribs, etc. When humans sit down to a delicious meal of undercooked, trichina-infected pig dinner, they are ingesting T. spiralis cysts. The cyst walls are broken down by the usual process of food digestion in the stomach, allowing the larvae to escape into the new host's intestines. There the larvae mature to become adult worms, capable of producing a new crop of larvae. When these new larvae hatch, they begin their migration throughout the human host's bloodstream to his or her muscles, where they live for a short while before encysting.
Causes & symptoms
Human hosts who eat meat infested with trichinae may experience symptoms in varying degrees. If the meat ingested has only a few cysts, then the human host's load of parasites (worm burden) is said to be relatively small, and symptoms will be moderate. In fact, many trichinosis infections are subclinical, which means that the symptoms are so mild that the infection remains undiagnosed. In a host with a greater worm burden, the initial symptoms will be caused by the presence of the adult worms in the intestine. These symptoms usually include fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and perhaps vomiting. The symptoms begin about one to two days after eating the contaminated meat, and may last for a week or so.
When the larvae begin their migration through the blood vessels, the host will begin to experience symptoms which affect the whole body (systemic symptoms), such as fever; swelling of the face and the area around the eyes; rash; bleeding into the nail beds, retina, and whites of the eyes; and cough. In very severe cases of trichinosis, inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis), lungs (pneumonitis), or brain (encephalitis) may occur. These symptoms can lead to the few deaths caused by trichinosis.
The larvae begin to burrow into the host's muscles and form cysts within two to three weeks of the initial infection. This encysting produces signs of muscle inflammation (myositis) including swelling of the affected muscle groups, pain, and weakness. The most frequently affected muscles are the muscles outside the eye (extraocular muscles) that control eye movements; the muscles of the jaw, neck, and upper arm (biceps muscle); the muscles of the lower back (lumbar region); and the diaphragm, which is the muscle that separates the abdominal and chest cavities and aids in breathing.
The symptoms of trichinosis are at their most severe at about three weeks after infection, and decrease very slowly in their severity. Recovery is extremely gradual, and symptoms may last for as long as three months. Fatigue and muscle pain (myalgia) may take several more months to subside.
An initial diagnosis of trichinosis relies heavily on the presence of its classic symptoms-- swelling around the eyes, muscle inflammation, fever, and high levels of a certain type of white blood cell (eosinophils)-- coupled with the patient's history. If the patient reports having eaten undercooked meat from an animal known to be a potential carrier of trichinosis, the doctor may order a muscle biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. By the third or fourth week of infection, muscle biopsies usually indicate the presence of larvae. Stool tests rarely reveal adult worms, although larvae can sometimes be found in blood or duodenal washings after the second week of infection. The blood test that is the most specific for trichinosis is the bentonite flocculation (BF) test.
T. spiralis can infect a number of different animal species used for food. The most common food culprit in the United States has been pork sausage, while outbreaks in Europe have caused by wild boar and horse meat. Outbreaks of trichinosis in Asia and Africa have been traced to dog meat, and outbreaks in Northern Canada have resulted from consumption of walrus and bear meat.
Treatment of trichinosis is primarily aimed at decreasing the severity of the symptoms. Symptomatic relief includes bed rest and medications to relieve fever and muscle pain. The medications most commonly given are aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Steroids such as prednisone (Deltasone, Meticorten) are reserved for the most severe cases of muscle inflammation, or for complicated cases that include myocarditis.
In addition to medications for pain relief, trichinosis can be treated with drugs that are called anti-worm medications or anthelminthics. Two related anti-worm medications, mebendazole (Vermox) and thiabendazole (Mintezol), have been reported to be effective against intestinal larvae, but not against larvae encysted in the muscles. In particular, thiabendazole has worked best when given to patients who knew within 24 hours that they had eaten infested meat. Thiabendazole has, however, anti-inflammatory properties that can relieve some of the pain during the muscle stage of trichinosis.
The prognosis for recovery from trichinosis is generally good. Most people with the disease are unaware that they have even been infected. It is estimated that between 150,000 and 300,00 people in the United States become infected yearly, so that at any given time, 1.5 million people have T. spiralis infections. Most of these people have such light cases that trichinosis is never identified. Worm burden is measured in larvae per gram of muscle tissue; people with 10 or fewer larvae per gram of muscle tissue usually have no significant symptoms. When the number climbs to 100 larvae per gram of muscle tissue, the symptoms become noticeable. People with over 1000 larvae per gram of muscle tissue are usually extremely ill, and often die. The mortality rate of trichinosis is about 1%.
Prevention of trichinosis is relatively simple. Swine should be fed only grain or cooked garbage because uncooked garbage may contain contaminated pork scraps. Meat from animals prone to trichinosis infection should be cooked or smoked thoroughly until it is no longer pink. Freezing meat at an adequately low temperature (5°F/-15°C for three weeks) can kill most encysted larvae, except for species which infect such arctic mammals as walrus or bear.
- A type of medication that is given to destroy or eliminate parasitic worms.
- In the life cycle of the round worm, a protective, walled-off capsule in which the larvae lie dormant.
- In the life cycle of the round worm, a very early life stage occurring within the uterus of the female round worm.
- The animal within which a parasite lives, and from which the parasite receives its nutrition.
- A reaction within the body to an invader (virus, bacteria, fungus, worm, etc.) or to tissue injury. The classic signs of inflammation include redness, heat, pain, and loss of function.
- In the life cycle of the round worm, the second stage of life, sometimes considered the "adolescent" stage.
- A type of roundworm with a long, unsegmented body, usually parasitic on animals or plants.
- Striated muscle
- Also known as striped muscle; it includes muscles of the skeletal system and of the heart.
- An individual example of .
For Your Information
- Plorde, James J. "Trichinella." In Sherris Medical Microbiology: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases, edited by Kenneth J. Ryan. Norwalk, CT: Appleton and Lange, 1994.
- Stoffman, Phyllis. The Family Guide to Preventing and Treating 100 Infectious Diseases. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1995.
- Stack, Peter S. "Trichinosis: Still a Public Health Threat." Postgraduate Medicine 97(6)(June 1995): 137+.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (404) 332-4559. http://www.cdc.gov/travel/travel.html.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.