Doctors Thought The Cyst in a Woman's Brain Might Be a Tumor—But It Turned Out to Be Filled With Tapeworm Larvae

Cropped shot of an young female looking stressed

Stress, dehydration, and excess alcohol are all well-known causes of a headache. But there are other, less obvious reasons for pounding head pain—as one Australian woman discovered. After she experienced a headache for more than a week, doctors found tapeworm larvae in her brain. 

The unidentified woman is the subject of a new case study, published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene on September 21. Hers is the first native case of the parasite known as neurocysticercosis (NCC), which can be fatal. 

For seven years, the 25-year-old barista, who has never been overseas, had experienced migraines two or three times a month. Prescribed migraine medication always helped, but when she suffered from a headache for more than a week that also affected her vision, she sought medical attention. 

After carrying out a brain scan, doctors suspected the woman might have a tumor. But an operation to remove the lesion revealed a cyst full of tapeworm larvae. After it was removed, she required no further treatment. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), NCC is caused by the pork tapeworm Taenia solium. People can get infected with it after eating undercooked food (particularly pork), or coming into contact with food, water, or soil contaminated with tapeworm eggs. If Taeniasis (the name of the actual tapeworm infection) is left untreated, the tapeworm eggs can travel through the bloodstream into the brain and form cysts. NCC is the most severe form of the disease and is a common cause of epilepsy worldwide, says the WHO. 

Symptoms of NCC include seizures, headaches, or dizziness, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, some people show no signs of infection at all. To protect yourself from all types of parasitic infection, the CDC recommends cooking meat to safe temperatures, washing your hands with soap regularly and before eating, and only eating food you know was cooked in sanitary conditions. 

Previously, people infected with NCC in Australia had traveled to regions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and they were likely infected overseas. Researchers in the case study, however, wrote that neither the woman or her relatives had been to any of those regions, yet they pointed out that she came into contact with people from many countries in her job as a barista. 

“Clinicians need to be mindful that with the ease and frequency of world travel, diseases such as [NCC] that are highly endemic in many parts of the world pose a risk to inhabitants of countries with low endemicity,” the study authors wrote. 

A similar case was reported in January. A man from Austin, Texas had been suffering from headaches that were so intense they made him vomit or even pass out. After 10 years of this torture, he got medical attention and a brain scan revealed a 4 centimeter mass near his brain stem, which turned out to be a large tapeworm. 

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