What are pinworms?
Pinworms are small, white, threadlike worms that infect up to 50 percent of children. If your child's infected, he'll probably scratch and complain of itching around the anus, especially at night.
You may be able to see the worms, which are about a quarter of an inch long and look like pieces of dental floss, wiggling around your child's anus and in his stool.
A common childhood malady, pinworms don't indicate poor hygiene. They pose no health risks, and -- unlike lice -- they're easily eradicated.
How can I tell if my child has pinworms?
Nighttime itching is the big tip-off. You can confirm your suspicion by checking your child for worms at night with a flashlight. You can also check for the presence of worms by pressing a piece of transparent tape to your child's anus. Eggs will stick to the tape, and you can take it to your pediatrician to use in making the diagnosis. The doctor may also have a special kit to collect pinworm eggs (the eggs can often be seen even if you can't detect the actual worms).
If you don't find pinworms or eggs, anal itching may signal other problems, including dryness from cleaning the area with a lot of soap. A child who has tender red skin around his anus could also have a bacterial infection; if you suspect an infection, call your pediatrician.
How did my child become infected?
Your child probably got pinworm eggs on his hands -- possibly from touching a toy handled by a child with pinworms -- and then put his fingers in his mouth. The swallowed eggs then traveled to his large intestine, where they hatched. From there female pinworms migrated out of his anus to lay their eggs on his skin there.
As the worms move, they cause intense itching and restless sleep. Your child scratches his itchy bottom, the eggs get under his fingernails, and another cycle begins when he puts his hands in his mouth.
How are pinworms treated?
Your pediatrician will prescribe medication -- most often mebendazole -- to kill the worms. (The side effects of mebendazole include diarrhea and abdominal cramping.)
Affected children and other members of the household who have symptoms take one chewable tablet. Symptoms of pinworm infection usually disappear within one week of treatment. Even if the symptoms go away, your child's doctor may want to repeat this treatment two weeks later. She will also recommend washing clothing and bedding in hot water to destroy the worms and their eggs.
After treatment, you may see a lot of worms, some moving and wriggling, in your child's stool. Though unsettling, this is no cause for alarm.
How can I prevent pinworms?
Here are a few tips on avoiding the irritating pests:
- Teach your child to wash his hands and scrub with a nail brush after using the bathroom and before he eats
- Clean his nails and keep them short to prevent eggs from accumulating underneath
- Discourage habits like nail-biting and thumb-sucking
- Vacuum your floors to get rid of any stray eggs
Remember, many children get pinworms. And as is the case with lice, this problem isn't an indication of poor parenting or a lack of cleanliness.
American Academy of Pediatrics, HealthyChildren.org. Pinworms. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/abdominal/Pages/Pinworms.aspx
Centers for Disease Control. Enterobiasis (also known as Pinworm Infection). http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/pinworm/