Trichinosis is an infection with the roundworm Trichinella spiralis.
Trichinosis is a disease caused by eating meat that has not been thoroughly cooked and contains cysts (larvae, or immature worms) of Trichinella spiralis. Trichinella spiralis can be found in pork, bear, walrus, fox, rat, horse, and lion.
Wild animals, especially carnivores (meat eaters) or omnivores (animals that eat both meat and plants), should be considered possible sources of roundworm disease. Domestic meat animals raised specifically for eating under United States Department of Agriculture (government) guidelines and inspection can be considered safe. For this reason, trichinosis is rare in the United States, but it is a common infection worldwide.
When a person eats meat from an infected animal, Trichinella cysts break open in the intestine and grow into adult roundworms. The roundworms produce other worms that move through the gut wall and into the bloodstream. The worms invade muscle tissues, including the heart and diaphragm (the breathing muscle under the lungs). They can also infect the lungs and brain. The cysts remain alive for years.
Symptoms of trichinosis include:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Facial swelling around the eyes
- Muscle pain (especially muscle pain with breathing, chewing, or using large muscles)
- Muscle weakness
Exams and Tests
Tests to diagnose this condition include:
- Complete blood count (CBC)
- Eosinophil count (a type of white blood cell)
- Creatine kinase level (an enzyme found in muscle cells)
- Muscle biopsy
- Blood antibody test
Medicines can be used to treat infections in the intestines, though mild infection does not usually need treatment. Pain medicine can help relieve muscle soreness after the larvae have invaded the muscles.
Most people with trichinosis have no symptoms and the infection goes away by itself. More severe infections may be difficult to treat, especially if the lungs, heart, or brain is involved.
Possible complications include:
- Encephalitis (brain infection and inflammation)
- Heart failure
- Heart rhythm problems from heart inflammation
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of trichinosis and you recently ate undercooked or raw meat that might have been contaminated.
Pork and meat from wild animals should be cooked until well done (no traces of pink). Freezing pork at subzero temperatures (5°F - 15°C, or colder) for 3 to 4 weeks will kill the worms. Freezing wild game meat does not always kill the worms. Smoking, salting, and drying meat are also not reliable methods of killing the worms.
Diemert DJ. Tissue nematode infections. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 366.
Kazura JW. Tissue nematodes including trichinellosis, dracunculiasis, and the filariases. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolan R, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill-Livingstone; 2014:chap 289.
Reviewed By: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Associate Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.