Man's Headache Caused by Tapeworm in Brain Sheds Light on Rare Condition

Luis Ortiz said he had a massive headache before doctors found the parasite.

ByABC News
November 5, 2015, 3:33 PM

— -- A man's headache that turned out to be the result of a parasitic infection has shed light on a rare condition caused by tapeworm infections.

While tapeworm infections usually affect the digestive tract, in rare cases the parasite can infect the brain, leading to a condition called neurocysticercosis. Luis Ortiz, 26, dealt with that rare infection in August after a headache left him nauseated and confused.

Ortiz was visiting his family in Napa, California, when the symptoms started over the course of one day, he told ABC News. His headache left him confused in the family home and he ended up vomiting before his parents took him into the emergency room.

Once there, Ortiz was stunned to learn from the doctors that he had tapeworm larva in his brain that was cutting off blood flow.

"I think it hit me hardest when the doc said you have a parasite in your head and we have to operate to take it out," Ortiz told ABC News today. "The doctor told me if I would have come a half-hour later than when I did, I wouldn’t be alive."

Once in surgery, Ortiz said doctors were able to remove the cyst and the larva while it was still alive.

"He’s like, 'Yeah, we took it out and it was blocking the veins flowing [blood] through the brains,'" Ortiz recalled of what his surgeon told him after the operation. "He showed me the worm in the jar."

The infection has left Ortiz with memory problems, he said, forcing him to temporarily drop out of school. He is staying with his parents as he recovers.

The infection can be deadly and hospitalizes an estimated 1,000 people every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More common forms of tapeworm infection can be treated with parasite medications, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Since it is relatively rare, the CDC said this form of tapeworm infection is not well understood by many in the medial field.

"Neurocysticercosis is considered a Neglected Parasitic Infection, one of a group of diseases that results in significant illness among those who are infected and is often poorly understood by health care providers," the CDC explained on its website.

The infection occurs when a person eats under-cooked meat or tainted food that contains tapeworm eggs. Once ingested, the parasite eggs can hatch in the digestive tract. While the parasite usually stays in the digestive tract, in rare cases they can migrate to the brain, where larval cysts damage the brain and can lead to complications or seizures, according to the CDC.

Dr. Keith Armitage, an infectious disease specialist and travel medicine expert at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, said it’s possible for tapeworms to live in the body for years.

“Usually when it migrates to the brain, it causes symptoms,” Armitage explained. “They can become intestinal symptoms for years and only becomes clear if they look for it.”

The cyst is usually formed around the larva because the immune system is attempting to protect the body from the infection, Armitage said.

In the U.S., the disease is most often reported in New York, California, Oregon and Illinois, and people affected are usually arriving from areas where the disease is more common, according to the CDC.

Those wanting to avoid the creepy-crawly parasites should be sure to properly cook meat, according to the CDC.

For whole cuts of meat (excluding poultry), the CDC recommends cooking to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

For ground meat (excluding poultry), the CDC recommends cooking to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.