To Your Health

Are there natural remedies for pinworms?

Q. I don't make a habit of looking at my bowel movements in the commode, but a few nights ago I happened to look before I flushed. I was horrified to see little wiggling white specks. I took a stool specimen to my doctor, and she said they are pinworms. She recommended Pin-X, but I wonder if there are natural remedies.

A. Pinworms are small, white, threadlike worms that live in the large intestine. They are the most common intestinal parasite in the U.S. Researchers estimate that as many as 42 million Americans have pinworms. Most of those infected are children between the ages of 5 and 14, but the infection is highly contagious and can easily spread to the entire family.

Seeing them in a bowel movement is not the usual way pinworms are discovered. Pinworms tend to remain in the large intestines and the female pinworms come out only at night to lay eggs around the anus, causing the itching that is usually the first clue to an infection. The itching may also produce other symptoms such as a lot of moving around in bed at night or inability to sleep.

Infection is acquired when these eggs are accidentally swallowed. It's hard to avoid pinworm infection, even when there is good sanitation, because their eggs are often airborne. For instance, adults can breathe in the eggs when the bed covers are shaken. In addition, the eggs can be picked up from scratching the itchy area if hands are not washed before eating. Eggs can survive up to two weeks on clothing, bedding, or other objects. Pets do not spread pinworms, although they may carry their own kinds of worms.

If pinworms are suspected but not diagnosed, apply transparent adhesive tape to the anal region as soon as you wake up in the morning. The eggs are visible only with a microscope, but the worms themselves, which look like tiny, white-collared threads about one-quarter inch long, may be discernible. You may need to look at several samples to be certain whether or not a pinworm infection exists.

Fortunately, most pinworm infections are mild and easily treated and only very rarely are there complications. Besides the medicine your physician recommended, several herbs are traditionally used for treatment of parasites, although none has been rigorously tested for efficacy or safety in humans and their use requires the skills of an experienced practitioner. It is important to note that anything potent enough to kill parasites could potentially harm the person taking it.

Even if only one person in a family has pinworms, it is very important that everyone in the household be treated with the pinworm medicine at the same time, even if they don't have any signs of pinworms. All the sheets, blankets, towels, and clothing in the house should be washed in hot water, and everyone's fingernails (which might hold the worm eggs) should be carefully cleaned and cut short.

A pinworm infection may not be all bad. Today, people in developed countries often live in such hygienic environments that it is theorized that failure to acquire parasites predisposes us to other diseases. Parasites are a major source of immune stimulation and perhaps the immune responses aroused by parasites may galvanize an immune reaction to bacterial and viral infections or even cancer.

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