You’ve heard of lice. But did you know there’s another troublesome critter infesting classrooms? It’s called a pinworm, and while it’s generally not dangerous, it can cause real discomfort and it spreads easily. Here’s what you need to know about pinworm infection and what to do if your child or another person in your household has it.
What are pinworms?
A pinworm (scientific name Enterbius vernacularis) is a thin white roundworm, about the length of a staple, that can live in the colon or rectum of an infected person, most commonly a school-age child or preschooler. At night, while the infected child sleeps, female pinworms travel from the intestine to the area surrounding the anus, where they lay their eggs. The eggs usually cause an allergic reaction that results in intense itching.
Pinworm eggs can easily be transferred to the hands and, from there, to bed linens, toys, toilet seats, clothing, and virtually any other surface. A person gets infected when they ingest the eggs, which helps explain why pinworm infection is most prevalent in young children. (Think about how often preschoolers put their hands in their mouths.) And the eggs are actually so small that they can become airborne, and you can ingest them just from taking a breath.
How can you tell if a person has pinworms?
Pinworm eggs can cause significant itching around the anus, so the first sign in children is often a lot of scratching around the seat of his or her pants. Other symptoms of infection include sleeplessness or irritability, since the itching makes it difficult or impossible to get restful sleep, and occasionally intermittent abdominal pain or nausea. Unfortunately, sometimes pinworms cause no symptoms at all. This can make it very hard to prevent the spread of infection in a classroom or home; after all, if you don’t know there is a problem, it’s hard to fix it.
To check for pinworms, the first step is to inspect the perianal region—the folds of skin immediately surrounding the anus—a couple of hours after your child has gone to sleep, using a flashlight. You may be able to see some pinworms moving around. You can also apply adhesive tape to the area outside the anus first thing in the morning, before the child has gone to the bathroom or gotten dressed (since these activities can dislodge the eggs). Then remove the tape; if there are any eggs, they will stick to it. The CDC recommends conducting this test for three consecutive days. You can then take the tapes to your doctor, who will be able to see the eggs under a microscope.
If your suspicion of pinworms is correct, don’t panic: They are very treatable as long as you take the appropriate steps.
How to treat pinworms
The doctor will prescribe medication that is generally given in a first dose, followed by a second dose two weeks later. Treatment is obviously important, but preventing reoccurrence of infection is key. The eggs can live for 2 to 3 weeks on bedding, clothes, and other items, so it’s critical that everyone in the household take infection-prevention measures during that period. Infected individuals should shower every morning; avoid baths as this may lead to ingestion of eggs in the water. Infected children and their caretakers (who are at high risk of becoming infected themselves) should wash their hands frequently, especially after using the toilet or changing diapers and before eating. It is also important to keep fingernails very short, as eggs can get trapped under the nails. In some cases, the doctor treating the infected person may recommend that everyone in the household take medication as a precautionary measure.
Bottom line: Anyone with little kids knows that being a parent sometimes involves gross things. Pinworms are no exception, but they’re nothing to panic over. If your child gets an extra itchy bum, stay calm, call the doctor, keep everyone’s hands away from their mouths, and start infection-prevention steps right away. Even if turns out not to be pinworms, practicing extra-good hygiene will help prevent the spread of other illnesses like colds and flu. If it does turn out to be pinworms, you don’t need to keep your child home from school, but do let his or her teachers know about the infection so they can notify other parents.