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Disease

Trichinellosis is caused by infection with the parasite Trichinella. The severity of disease is related to the infectious dose and host characteristics, such as age of the patient or immunological priming as a result of previous Trichinella infection. Some reports have linked severity of disease to the infecting species of Trichinella, suggesting that certain species are more likely to cause severe disease than others. However, the pathogenicity of various species is difficult to define clinically without quantifying infectious dose.

The incubation period ranges from 1-2 days (enteral phase) to 2 to 8 weeks (parenteral phase) or more, depending on the infectious dose and possibly the species of parasite. The parasite larvae are released from meat during digestion and then penetrate the intestinal mucosa where they mature into adult worms. The adult worms mate and new larvae are produced which then migrate via the bloodstream to skeletal muscle throughout the body. The host immune response leads to expulsion of the adult worms after several weeks; the larvae, once in the striated muscle cells, can persist for months or years, although clinical signs and symptoms typically wane after several months. The earlier signs of trichinellosis – diarrhea, fever, myalgia and edema, especially of the face – correspond to the new larvae migration through the body and can persist days to weeks. In addition to physical damage to affected tissues, larval penetration and tissue migration causes an immune-mediated inflammatory reaction and stimulates the development of eosinophilia. More severe manifestations include myocarditis, encephalitis, and thromboembolic disease.

Diagnosis of Trichinella Infection

The diagnosis of trichinellosis is based on history of consumption of potentially contaminated meat, the presence of compatible signs and symptoms, and identification of Trichinella larvae in biopsy muscle tissue or specific antibody in serum. For outbreak-associated infections, the diagnosis can be made in asymptomatic persons on the basis of positive results on laboratory testing and history of consumption of an implicated meat. Diagnosis can be challenging, particularly in non-outbreak settings. In the early stages of disease, signs and symptoms are non-specific (see Disease) and mimic those of many other illnesses. For example, the diarrhea that can occur in the first weeks of Trichinella infection is also a common symptom of other foodborne diseases such as salmonellosis, and the fever and myalgia in the acute phase of Trichinella infection are also suggestive of influenza virus infection.

Trichinella infections are most often diagnosed in the laboratory based on detection of antibodies to excretory/secretory Trichinella antigen in EIA format. This antigen preparation will react with antibodies from other Trichinella species but may also cross react with non-specific antibodies. IgG antibodies can be detected approximately 12 to 60 days post-infection. Antibody development depends on the amount of infective Trichinella larvae that are consumed. Levels peak in the second or third month post-infection and then decline, but may be detectable for 10 years or more following infection. At least two serum specimens should be drawn and tested weeks apart to demonstrate seroconversion in patients with suspected trichinellosis whose initial results were negative or weakly positive. Immunologic tests for Trichinella infection have the potential for cross-reactivity with sera from patients with other conditions, especially other parasitic infections. One commercial EIA kit for trichinellosis antibody detection is available in the United States.

Muscle biopsies are infrequently performed, but they allow for the molecular identification of the Trichinella species or genotype, which is not possible with antibody testing. Usually, 0.2 to 0.5 grams of human or animal skeletal muscle tissue is collected and examined for Trichinella larvae via artificial digestion or histological analysis.

Serum and muscle biopsy specimens can be sent to CDC for confirmation. To obtain a specimen submission form for serologic or muscle biopsy testing, contact the Parasitic Diseases hotline at parasites@cdc.gov.

Treatment

Prompt treatment with antiparasitic drugs can help prevent the progression of trichinellosis by killing the adult worms and so preventing further release of larvae. Once the larvae have become established in skeletal muscle cells, usually by 3 to 4 weeks post infection, treatment may not completely eliminate the infection and associated symptoms. Treatment with either mebendazole or albendazole is recommended. If treatment is not initiated within the first several days of infection, more prolonged or repeated courses of treatment may be necessary. Both drugs are considered relatively safe but have been associated with side effects including bone marrow suppression. Patients on longer courses of therapy should be monitored by serial complete blood counts to detect any adverse effects promptly and discontinue treatment. Albendazole and mebendazole are not approved for use in pregnant women or children under the age of 2 years. In addition to antiparasitic medication, treatment with steroids is sometimes required in more severe cases.

DrugAdult and pediatric dose
Albendazole400 mg twice a day by mouth for 8 to 14 days
Mebendazole200 to 400 mg three times a day by mouth for 3 days, then 400 to 500 mg three times a day by mouth for 10 days

Albendazole

Oral albendazole is available for human use in the United States.

Note on Treatment in Pregnancy

Albendazole is pregnancy category C. Data on the use of albendazole in pregnant women are limited, though the available evidence suggests no difference in congenital abnormalities in the children of women who were accidentally treated with albendazole during mass prevention campaigns compared with those who were not. In mass prevention campaigns for which the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that the benefit of treatment outweighs the risk, WHO allows use of albendazole in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy. However, the risk of treatment in pregnant women who are known to have an infection needs to be balanced with the risk of disease progression in the absence of treatment.

Pregnancy Category C: Either studies in animals have revealed adverse effects on the fetus (teratogenic or embryocidal, or other) and there are no controlled studies in women or studies in women and animals are not available. Drugs should be given only if the potential benefit justifies the potential risk to the fetus.

Note on Treatment During Lactation

It is not known whether albendazole is excreted in human milk. Albendazole should be used with caution in breastfeeding women.

Note on Treatment in Pediatric Patients

The safety of albendazole in children less than 6 years old is not certain. Studies of the use of albendazole in children as young as one year old suggest that its use is safe. According to WHO guidelines for mass prevention campaigns, albendazole can be used in children as young as 1 year old. Many children less than 6 years old have been treated in these campaigns with albendazole, albeit at a reduced dose.

Mebendazole

Oral mebendazole is available for human use in the United States

Note on Treatment in Pregnancy

Mebendazole is in pregnancy category C. Data on the use of mebendazole in pregnant women are limited. The available evidence suggests no difference in congenital anomalies in the children of women who were treated with mebendazole during mass treatment programs compared with those who were not. In mass treatment programs for which the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that the benefit of treatment outweighs the risk, WHO allows use of mebendazole in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy. The risk of treatment in pregnant women who are known to have an infection needs to be balanced with the risk of disease progression in the absence of treatment.

Pregnancy Category C: Either studies in animals have revealed adverse effects on the fetus (teratogenic or embryocidal, or other) and there are no controlled studies in women or studies in women and animals are not available. Drugs should be given only if the potential benefit justifies the potential risk to the fetus.

Note on Treatment During Lactation

It is not known whether mebendazole is excreted in breast milk. The WHO classifies mebendazole as compatible with breastfeeding and allows the use of mebendazole in lactating women.

Note on Treatment in Pediatric Patients

The safety of mebendazole in children has not been established. There is limited data in children age 2 years and younger. Mebendazole is listed as an intestinal antihelminthic medicine on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines for Children, intended for the use of children up to 12 years of age.

 
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  • Page last reviewed: August 8, 2012
  • Page last updated: August 8, 2012
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