As one of the several varieties of roundworms, whipworms are a type of intestinal parasite that can infect both humans and animals. The whipworm acquired its popular name due to the actual shape of the worm, which is very similar to a whip. Whipworms, which are sometimes confused with hookworms, have long slim bodies that are characterized by a section at one end that closely resembles the handle found on various types of whips.
An infection of whipworms begins with the ingestion of whipworm eggs. Generally, the chances for infection are better in warmer climates, since the eggs require a higher temperature in order to survive outside a host. Once in the body, the eggs settle into the small intestine. Upon hatching, whipworms continue to grow until they reach maturity. At that point, the smaller end of the whipworm begins to bore into the large intestine, while the thicker end remains in place and mates with other worms. This creates more parasites in the system that will in turn hatch, burrow and mate.
In both household pets and humans, the presence of whipworms may be indicated by several health symptoms. As the infestation grows, diarrhea may occur; blood in the stool will be noticeable. Over time, the amount of blood in the stool will steadily increase. The blood loss will lead directly to a weakness that is due to anemia. It is important to note that whipworms live off the tissue of their host, rather than diverting digested nutrition from vital organs, as is often the case with tapeworms. If unchecked, the body will also begin to dehydrate, and could reach a point where organs begin to shut down. Rectal prolapse may occur if the condition is allowed to progress over a long period of time.
A few simple safeguards can help minimize the chance of developing whipworms. Children who play in dirt should not place their fingers into their mouths before washing thoroughly. Washing the hands is also important for adults that engage in gardening as well. Fresh harvested vegetables and fruits should be washed and dried completely before consumption. In general, making sure that all food is clean before preparation and consumption, and practicing good hygiene habits will just about eliminate the chance of contracting whipworms.
Fortunately, whipworms can be treated effectively with several different drugs. For humans, Mebendazole is often used to rid the body of the infection. Albendazole may also be used as a means of freeing the body from the presence of whipworms. A qualified physician can order and evaluate a stool examination in order to both diagnose whipworms as well as confirm that the parasites have been killed and ejected. Similar medications are available for administration by veterinarians when household pets are diagnosed with a case of whipworms.