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Am Fam Physician. 2002;66(5):821

What is echinococcosis?

Echinococcosis (Say this: eh-kinno-cock-ko-sus.), also called hydatid disease, is an infection caused by eating food or water that is contaminated with the eggs of the Echinococcus worm. This worm is a microscopic tapeworm that is often found in dogs and common livestock, especially sheep.

Although infection in humans is rare, it can be serious. After the tapeworm egg is eaten, it can grow into a large cyst, usually in the liver. A liver cyst may cause no symptoms for many years, until the cyst is large enough to cause problems.

These cysts can also grow in the lungs, brain, and other organs. If left untreated, you could die from this infection.

Who gets echinococcosis, and how?

The disease is found all over the world where humans are in close contact with dogs and livestock. In the United States, echinococcosis is mostly found in the Southwest and Alaska.

Humans can get echinococcosis by eating food or drinking water contaminated with feces from infected dogs. Humans can also get this disease by playing with or handling infected dogs or livestock.

How can my doctor tell I have echinococcosis?

The cysts are often found on x-rays. Because echinococcosis is rare and hard to find inside the body, your doctor may have to order a blood test. Sometimes a thin needle is used to puncture the cyst and take out fluid to test for the Echinococcus infection.

What are the symptoms of echinococcosis?

Echinococcosis may not produce any symptoms for 10 or 20 years because the cysts grow slowly. A person with echinococcosis might have pain in the stomach, weakness, or weight loss because of the cysts. Other symptoms include itching, coughing, bloody stools, chest pain, and fever.

How is echinococcosis treated?

Treatment for this disease is based on where the cysts are found and what problems they are causing. Doctors can take out the cyst in surgery, although this may not be 100 percent effective. You may also need medicine to keep the tapeworm from coming back.

How can I keep from getting echinococcosis?

If you live in an area where livestock are raised and you have contact with dogs, you should be careful. Give your dogs routine worming treatments to remove tapeworms. Always wash your hands after handling your pets. Fence in your garden to keep out pets and wild animals. Be sure to wash fruits and vegetables before eating them.

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