Liver Fluke: Treatment and How To Spot Symptoms

Illustration of a human's liver

In the Western world, we rarely think about parasitic creatures living inside us. Surely such a thing doesn’t happen in our modern society? Except it can and does. There are many types of parasitic worms out there, and they cause illness in millions of people worldwide. Every so often, we hear stories of people who have experienced severe illness due to microscopic organisms that have somehow burrowed into the human body and set up residence. One of these parasites is the humble liver fluke.

You may not have heard of flukes before—or maybe you have, in a high school biology classroom. However, they are usually not the first thing we think of when it comes to stomach discomfort. Do you know enough about flukes to see the signs and prevent permanent liver damage?

What Is a Liver Fluke?

A liver fluke is a parasitic flatworm, commonly found in Southeast Asia. The most common types of flukes are Clonorchis sinensisOpisthorchis viverrini and Opisthorchis felineus.


Humans usually become infected with liver flukes after eating raw or undercooked freshwater fish and in some cases watercress. Once the liver flukes have been ingested, they travel from the intestines to the bile ducts in the liver (hence the name). About four to six months after settling in the bile ducts, an adult fluke can begin producing eggs, which are passed into the intestines and then excreted in the feces. One adult fluke can lay between 2000 and 4000 eggs in a day. The parasites can live in the bile ducts for a long time—sometimes as long as 20 or 30 years!

Approximately 35 million people worldwide are infected with liver flukes. While they are not common in the United States, they are most commonly found in Southeast Asian countries like China, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, and Laos. People living along rivers may be prone to fluke infection due to a habit of eating raw or undercooked freshwater fish.


Even if you do not live in an area where flukes are common, you could still become infected if you eat undercooked freshwater fish. Your chances of contracting flukes also go up if you travel to places where it is more common.

Liver flukes are not contagious between humans. You cannot catch liver flukes by interacting with someone who has been infected.

Symptoms

Person holding its abdomen

image via: Pixabay

Most people who are infected with liver flukes may not even know. Although flukes can cause long-lasting inflammation of the bile ducts, in many cases people may not show symptoms that are easily recognized. However, there are a few symptoms you can keep an eye out for:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Hives

In some cases, symptoms of liver fluke infection can be mistaken for stomach ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome.


Chronic liver fluke infection, even if there are no symptoms, can cause serious damage to the liver, such as cirrhosis. Severe infection can also cause an enlarged liver or jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes) due to the obstruction of the bile ducts.


While not every person who is infected with flukes may show symptoms, there are complications that can occur. Rare complications include stone formation, infections of the biliary system (bile ducts), and cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer).

Diagnosis

If you live in areas where liver flukes are common, you may want to have screening tests on a regular or semi-regular basis. If you have recently traveled to a part of the world where flukes are common, you also should be screened as a precaution.


Common screenings tests include stool ova tests, where a person's stool is checked for fluke eggs, and liver ultrasound scans or computed tomography (CAT) scans. Ultrasound or CAT scan images may show dilation of the bile ducts, which can indicate flukes.


Your healthcare professional may recommend additional tests to confirm a diagnosis of liver flukes. A full blood count can indicate the elevation of a particular type of white blood cell called eosinophils. Some immunological techniques, which test the blood or stool for worm-specific antibodies or antigens, can also detect flukes. However, these immunological tests do not give evidence of whether the infection is current, recent, or occurred a long time ago.

Treatment and Prevention

Once your doctor has confirmed a diagnosis of liver flukes, you’ll want to discuss your treatment options. Most of the time, flukes are successfully treated with medication, but there are a few other options you may consider.

Medication

Alternative Treatments

Treating Symptoms

Prognosis

Prevention

​Conclusion

Liver flukes are uncommon in the Western world, but not impossible. If you consume raw or undercooked freshwater fish, you still have a chance of becoming infected. The best way to make sure you do not have liver flukes in your system is to make sure that your fish is always cooked properly.


If you have a fluke infection, it is important to catch it early. If you live or travel to areas where flukes are common, and you experience symptoms, consult your healthcare provider as soon as possible for a stool test. Early detection can help prevent complications that can have a serious negative impact on your health.


With more research, it is possible we will see a vaccine for flukes in the future. Until then, focusing on prevention is your best bet.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here