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Trichinosis is an infection caused by the trichina roundworm, a parasite which colonizes the bodies of animals like pigs and wild game. Most cases of trichinosis are relatively mild, and also quite rare, thanks to increased awareness about food safety. In some cases, however, trichinosis can lead to damage of the tissues in the nervous system, causing brain damage, coma, or even death. To avoid this unfortunate turn of events, people should always cook pork and wild game to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius).
This infection is also sometimes referred to as trichinellosis or trichiniasis. In all cases, the process of the disease starts with an animal like a pig, which picks up larval forms of the parasite in its food. Within a few days, adult worms develop in the intestinal tract, and then larvae are transported through the bloodstream to the animal's muscles, at which point they encyst, going into a dormant state where they can survive for up to a decade.
When someone consumes undercooked meat with encysted parasites, their stomach acids will dissolve the cyst wall, freeing the trichinae worms. Within a few days, intestinal symptoms start to manifest as the worms mature. If the worms are allowed to breed, creating larvae, the victim will start to experience muscle aches, fever, headaches, and nausea as the larvae move out into the body through the bloodstream to encyst all over again.
Trichinosis becomes dangerous if the worms manage to work their way into the central nervous system. While this is rare, it does happen, and it can be fatal. Although the worms cannot survive in the central nervous system, they can cause some damage before ultimately dying, and if enough worms are present, this damage can be debilitating.
Once the worms get into the bloodstream, it is difficult to treat trichinosis. Anti-inflammatory drugs can be prescribed to help reduce the pain, itching, and other symptoms which accompany the migration of the worms. For this reason, doctors like to treat suspected cases of trichinosis early, prescribing antiparasitic medications within a few days in the hopes of killing off the adult worms in the intestinal tract.
By cooking pork and game meats to a safe internal temperature, the risk of trichinosis is eliminated, because the parasites cannot survive in high temperatures. However, if you eat undercooked pork or game and feel ill within a few days, you should see a doctor immediately; he or she can take a blood or stool sample to check for signs of trichinosis and start treatment.