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Essentials of Diagnosis

  • Intestinal nematodes: demonstration of characteristic eggs or parasites in stool.
  • Bloodstream nematodes (filariasis): clinical diagnosis can be made; fresh blood smear may be confirmatory.
  • Tissue nematodes: clinical diagnosis can be made; skin snip or other tissue examination may show organism.

General Considerations

Nematodes (roundworms) are nonsegmented, tapered, bilaterally symmetrical, cylindrical organisms that have complete digestive tracts and reproduce sexually. Although > 500,000 species of nematodes have been described, only a small number are commonly encountered as human parasites. Most nematodes have complex life cycles, sometimes involving several larval forms and intermediate hosts or free-living stages. The pathogenic nematodes may be categorized as primarily intestinal or extraintestinal tissue parasites (Box 1).

Intestinal Nematode Infections

Tissue Nematode Infections



Trichinella species are unique among the tissue-dwelling nematodes in that there is no intermediate arthropod vector stage. Trichinella nematodes parasitize carnivores. Adult worms parasitize the small intestine; infective larvae are released and migrate from the intestine to muscle tissues in the host, where the larvae encyst and remain viable and infectious for several years. When the host tissues are eaten, the cyst walls are digested and the larvae again mature within several days in the intestine of the new host, perpetuating the life cycle. Normal hosts of Trichinella spp. include swine, rats, bears, foxes, walrus, and other carnivorous mammals. Humans are an incidental host. Cooking meat to 55 °C core temperatures or freezing (-15 °C) for 3 wk kills Trichinella spp. larvae.

Clinical & Laboratory Findings

Mild infection is usually asymptomatic. Early (1 wk) after infection, gastrointestinal symptoms predominate, including diarrhea, nausea or vomiting. After the second week, during the muscle invasion stage, systemic symptoms predominate including fever, myalgias, and malaise in most patients. Periorbital edema with conjunctival chemosis and edema of the eyelids is characteristic and common. Symptoms last between 4 and 8 weeks. Rarely, myocarditis or encephalitis may complicate the clinical course. In the laboratory, eosinophilia after the 10th day, sometimes marked, is characteristic, as is elevated immunoglobulin E. Serum creatine phosphokinase and lactic dehydrogenase concentrations reflect myositis. Trichinella serology becomes positive at = 3 wk after infection.


Treatment for trichinosis remains controversial and is primarily supportive. If ingestion is known to occur within 24 h, albendazole (400 mg twice daily, (60 days), mebendazole (200-400 mg 3 times daily for 3 days, then 400-500 mg 3 times daily for 10 days), or thiabendazole (25 mg/kg/day for 1 wk) has been proposed to prevent infection. The drug is not beneficial for established infection or muscle larvae. No specific therapy has been unequivocally demonstrated to be of benefit during the muscle invasion stage.


Spontaneous recovery is the rule, although full recovery may require weeks to months. Death, typically from myocarditis, encephalitis, or pneumonitis, is rare.


The incidence of human trichinosis has declined in developed countries with measures designed to reduce the prevalence of trichinosis in hogs. Trichina in wild game (or pork) can be killed by thorough cooking (internal temperature > 62 °C) throughout all parts of the meat or to > 56 °C for > 15 min, freezing < -15 °C for = 20 d, or gamma radiation.

Nematodes Larvae Infective For Humans


Toxocariasis, or visceral larva migrans, is a syndrome caused by invasion of human extraintestinal tissues by larvae of Ascaris spp. for which humans are not the usual host of the adult worms. Toxocara canis, commonly found in dogs, is the most commonly implicated species; Toxocara catis (cats) and Belascaris procyonis (raccoons) have also been implicated. Puppies can be infected transplacentally or transmammarily. Pregnancy in dogs reactivates latent infections in the bitch. Animals harboring adult ascarids in the intestine shed copious numbers of eggs into the environment. The eggs become infectious after 3-4 wk and are highly resistant to harsh environmental conditions. Toxocara eggs may remain infectious for months to years. Human infection results from ingestion of eggs from fecally contaminated soil, as may occur for example in children with pica. Direct transmission from pets to humans does not occur, because the eggs require maturation in soil before they become infective.

In young animals, ingested eggs hatch in the intestine and the larvae migrate through extraintestinal tissues, including liver and lung. Larvae induce coughing and are swallowed and then mature into adults in the small intestine to complete the life cycle, which resembles that of A lumbricoides in humans. In older animals, humans, and other hosts such as mice or rats, larvae also hatch from ingested eggs and invade extraintestinal tissues, but the larvae are unable to fully mature and may continue to persist and migrate in tissues as “second-stage” larvae for = 6 months. If these second-stage larvae are ingested by a dog or cat, the larvae may complete their life cycle and develop into adult intestinal worms. Eosinophilic granulomas caused by toxocariasis most often involve the liver or lungs; brain, eye, muscle, and skin involvement has also been reported.

Clinical & Laboratory Findings

Visceral larva migrans is predominately seen in children < 7 years old, and it may be associated with pica. Most cases appear to be asymptomatic. When present, symptoms are variable and depend on the organ systems involved but may include fever, cough or wheezing, and urticarial rash or skin nodules. Hepatomegaly is relatively common. Splenomegaly, lymphadenopathy, and evidence of myocarditis are less common.

Marked leukocytosis, sometimes exceeding 100,000 leukocytes/ul, and hypereosinophilia are common in visceral larva migrans. Polyclonal hypergammaglobulinemia and anti-A or anti-B antibodies to isohemagglutinin antigens (cross-reacting to T canis larval antigens) may occur. An eosinophilic spinal fluid pleocytosis may occur with central nervous system involvement. Chest x-ray abnormalities may be seen in one-third of patients. Toxocara serology may be helpful in confirming the diagnosis, but it should be remembered that in some populations the background prevalence of seropositivity in patients without clinically apparent visceral larva migrans may be high. Identification of larvae in tissue biopsy samples is diagnostic, but not sensitive. Stool examination is not usually helpful.

Ocular visceral larva migrans deserves special consideration. Infection of the eye with Toxocara larvae usually presents as a solitary finding in patients with no known history of visceral larva migrans and without concurrent multifocal, systemic symptoms or signs. The ocular findings are typically a unilateral posterior or peripheral eosinophilic inflammatory mass. Serologies may be negative. The ocular lesion may be mistaken for a retinoblastoma.


No specific therapy has been proven effective. In many cases, symptoms are self-limited and supportive, symptomatic treatment is all that is required. Treatment with a variety of antihelminthic agents has been tried with limited success. These agents include albendazole, thiabendazole, mebendazole, diethylcarbamazine, or ivermectin. Corticosteroids may be of benefit in some patients, especially subconjunctival applications in ocular visceral larva migrans.

Prevention & Prognosis

Puppies, kittens, and household dogs and cats, especially when pregnant or nursing, should be screened and treated as necessary to prevent transmission to humans. Pica should be prevented. Most cases are self-limited although symptoms may persist for months to several years.


Dracunculiasis, or guinea worm infection, is caused by infection by the tissue nematode Dracunculus medinensis. The parasite has been widely distributed in the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian Peninsula, and certain areas of West and central Africa north of the equator. Human infection is acquired by drinking water that contains tiny copepods (Cyclops spp.; “water fleas”) that carry the infectious third-stage larvae. The larvae migrate to subcutaneous connective tissue, usually in the lower extremities, where they develop into adult worms over an extended incubation period that can last up to a year. The adult female may reach 60-80 cm in length. When the extremities are exposed to water, the head of the gravid female protrudes through an ulceration in the host’s extremity, a loop of uterus prolapses and discharges large numbers of first-stage larvae into the water. These are ingested by copepods to complete the life cycle.

An active eradication program by the World Health Organization has led to a dramatic reduction in the incidence of dracunculiasis world-wide. Because no nonhuman reservoir is recognized, the disease may be eradicable in the near future.

Clinical Findings

A peripheral chronic cutaneous ulceration, from which the worm may protrude, is the hallmark of dracunculiasis. A local painful, stinging or burning papule may be the first indication of impending ulceration. Generalized symptoms including fever, nausea, vomiting, dyspnea, urticaria or pruritus, or periorbital edema may be associated with development of ulceration. Ulcers on the foot frequently prevent ambulation and may result in long-lasting deformity and secondary infection (including ankle or knee joint infection). Tetanus may also complicate dracunculiasis. Dead or dying worms may result in intense inflammatory reactions. Diagnosis in endemic areas is based on the typical clinical findings.



No specific antihelminthic therapy is available to kill adult worms. Mechanical removal of worms has been practiced for centuries. General treatment is focused on controlling complications, including bed rest, elevation of the affected extremity, wound care, and antibacterial therapy for secondary bacterial wound infections. Metronidazole, 250 mg orally 3 times daily, mebendazole, 400-800 mg orally daily, or thiabendazole 25 mg/kg twice daily may be helpful in promoting the expulsion of the worm, as is immersion of the affected limb in water several times daily.


Noncontaminated drinking water is the key to prevention of dracunculiasis. The World Health Organization prevention program has focused on provision of clean drinking water by using tube wells, hand pumps, or cisterns, by treating drinking water supplies with temephos (to eliminate the copepods), or by boiling water. Water can also by filtered to remove particles > 100 5m.

BOX 1. Nematodes Pathogenic in Human1


  • Ascaris lumbricoides
  • Ancylostoma braziliense or A. caninum (dog and cat intestinal hookworms; cutaneous larva migrans in humans)
  • Enterobius vermicularis (pinworm)
  • Ancylostoma duodenale (“Old World”), Necator americanus (“New World”) (hookworms)
  • Strongyloides stercoralis
  • Trichuris trichiura (whipworm)
  • Capillaria philippinensis (intestinal capillariasis)
  • Trichostrongylus spp.
  • Anisakiasis (larval fish nematode)

Tissue dwelling

  • Wuchereria spp. (lymphatic filariasis)
  • Brugia spp. (lymphatic filariasis)
  • Loa loa (African eye worm)
  • Mansonella spp.
  • Onchocerca volvulus

Other tissue nematodes

  • Dracunculus medinensis (Guinea worm)
  • Trichinella spiralis
  • Toxocara spp. (larval stages–visceral larva migrans)
  • Angiostrongylus cantonensis (meningitis)

1 A particular nematode’s presence is extremely dependent on the geographic location. For example, tissue–dwelling nematodes are uncommon or nonexistent in the United States.

BOX 2. Treatment of Selected Intestinal Nematode Infections


First Choice

Second Choice


  • Pyrantel pamoate, 10–11 mg/kg once
  • Mebendazole, 200–500 mg once (light infection) up to 100 mg twice daily for 3 d
  • Albendazole, 400 mg once (light infection) up to 400 mg once daily for 3 d
  • Ivermectin, 100–200 µg/kg once daily for 32 d
  • Piperazine, 75 mg/kg once daily for 2 d
  • Levamisole, 150 mg once


  • Pyrantel pamoate, 10–11 mg/kg once
  • Mebendazole, 100 mg once, repeat in 2 wk
  • Albendazole, 400 mg once, repeat in 2 weeks
  • Pyvinium pamoate, 5 mg/kg once, repeat in 2 weeks


  • Pyrantel pamoate, 10–11 mg/kg once daily for 3 d
  • Mebendazole, 100 mg twice daily for 3 d
  • Albendazole, 400 mg once (Ancylostoma1) or once daily for 3 d (Necator1)



  • Albendazole, 400 mg/d once or twice daily for 3–7 d, may repeat in1 wk
  • Ivermectin, 200 µg/kg once daily for 2 d
  • Thiabendazole, 25 mg/kg twice daily for 3 d; continue for 5–7 d in disseminated infection


  • Albendazole, 600 mg once
  • Mebendazole, 100 mg twice daily for 3 d
  • Oxantel pamoate, 15 mg/kg once

1Ancylostoma, “Old World” hookworm: Necator, “New World” hookworm.

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