Nematodes (Roundworms)

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Roundworms written for patients

Nematodes (roundworms) have elongated, bilaterally long cylindrical bodies which contain an intestinal system and a large body cavity. Parasitic nematodes vary in length from several millimetres to approximately 2 metres and have larval stages and adult worms of both sexes. Approximately 60 species of roundworms are parasites of humans.[1] 

Some nematode infections can be transmitted directly from person to person but, in others, the nematode eggs must mature outside the host. The parasites may spend a part of their life cycle in the soil before becoming infective to humans. Nematodes commonly parasitic on humans include (click links for separate articles which provide more detail):

Cutaneous larva migrans is caused by skin penetration and subsequent migration of larvae of various nematode parasites.

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  • A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2005 stated that approximately 0.807-1.221 billion humans have ascariasis, 604-795 million have trichuriasis, and 576-740 million have hookworm infections worldwide.[2]
  • The bowel of a child living in poverty in a developing country is likely to be parasitised with at least one nematode and, in many cases, multiple infection (eg, whipworms, ascaris, and hookworms), with resultant impairments in physical, intellectual, and cognitive development.[1][3]
  • The prevalence of nematode infections throughout the world is generally increasing but varies according to levels of poverty, natural disasters and human conflicts.[4] The spread of infection is also increasing in line with increased travel and mobility (eg, angiostrongyliasis and anisakiasis). However, some eradication programmes (notably for guinea worm disease) have been effective in reducing the burden of infection.

Control of nematode infections is based on drug treatment, improved sanitation and health education.

  • Antihelmintic drugs (eg, mebendazole, albendazole and tiabendazole) are often used for both symptomatic infections and for large-scale prevention of morbidity in children living in endemic areas. This has resulted in improvements in child health and education after deworming.
  • Concerns about the sustainability of periodic deworming with available drugs and the emergence of resistance mean that a great deal more needs to be done in terms of new drugs and developing effective vaccines, as well as education and alleviating poverty.

Further reading & references

  • Roundworm; NICE CKS, December 2011 (UK access only)
  • Parasites A-Z; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Cox FEG; History of Human Parasitology
  1. Stepek G, Buttle DJ, Duce IR, et al; Human gastrointestinal nematode infections: are new control methods required? Int J Exp Pathol. 2006 Oct;87(5):325-41.
  2. Hökelek M et al; Nematode Infections, Medscape, Dec 2011
  3. Bethony J, Brooker S, Albonico M, et al; Soil-transmitted helminth infections: ascariasis, trichuriasis, and hookworm. Lancet. 2006 May 6;367(9521):1521-32.
  4. Beyrer C, Villar JC, Suwanvanichkij V, et al; Neglected diseases, civil conflicts, and the right to health. Lancet. 2007 Aug 18;370(9587):619-27.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Document ID:
2501 (v25)
Last Checked:
11/11/2014
Next Review:
10/11/2019

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