“Hey, at least we don’t have to stick a piece of tape on our buttholes first thing in the morning for the next three days to find out if we have them.” My husband attempted to calm my growing panic with these ridiculous words that were, unfortunately, rooted in stone-cold facts. Looking on the bright side of things isn’t in his nature but thankfully he’s good at faking it when he sees me starting to spiral. It didn’t help. “I think my butt is itchy,” is all I could muster in response. It had been itchy since the moment he showed me the picture of poop with worms in it from the internet that looked exactly like the poop we had just found in my daughter’s underwear and said the words: “They are pinworms. We probably all have them.”
Pinworms?! Now you may be thinking, “What the f*ck are pinworms and why haven’t I heard of them?” That’s what I thought too. According to the CDC, 50% of American children will get pinworms and yet somehow my tribe of parent friends failed to prepare me for this moment. Forget Bruno, it turns out We Don’t Talk About Pinworms. And that’s why I’m sharing this cautionary tale with you, both horrifying and hilarious, of butt worms and the eggs they lay around the anuses of everyone you love, shameful pharmacy runs, sleepless nights, and endless laundry so that you will be better prepared when one day your kiddo tells you their butt is itchy in the night.
It all began on a Thursday around lunchtime when the school nurse’s number popped up on my caller ID jolting me out of a satisfying zone of work productivity. My 7-year-old son had puked at lunch and I needed to come get him. He was totally fine the rest of the day. However, that night and for several nights thereafter, he awoke with an itchy and uncomfortable butt and struggled for hours to fall back asleep. During the daytime, however, he felt totally normal. After a confusing and sleep-deprived weekend, we reached out to our pediatrician's office. They suspected hemorrhoids or an anal fissure and we scheduled an office visit the next day.
That night around 10pm, my 5-year-old daughter got up and climbed into bed with us. As she snuggled in next to me I was overwhelmed by the smell of shit. “Did you just go to the bathroom?” I whispered in her ear not wanting to wake my husband. “No,” she yawned. “Did you just fart?” “No!” She was getting annoyed. I definitely smell shit, I thought. I pulled the covers back and asked her to come to the bathroom with me. To our mutual surprise, she had indeed pooped a little in her underwear in her sleep and didn’t realize it.
That’s when I saw them, little white strings not unlike the tail ends of alfalfa sprouts. “What the f*ck is that?” escaped from my lips against my will. I don’t think she heard me. What did she eat today? Definitely not sprouts. OMG WTF?! THOSE CANNOT BE F*CKING WORMS, RIGHT?! RIGHT?! I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing but I pulled myself together for her sake. I helped her get cleaned up and sent her to get some fresh pjs from her room. Then I called for my husband who had also woken up during the whole why does it smell like shit in here debacle. “Can you come in here for a second?” My tone was definitely shrill.
I didn’t say a word when he walked in, just a desperate and confused gesture at the specimen in the underwear which was still lying on the edge of the sink. He took in the whole weird scene and walked back to our bedroom. The glow of his phone from the bed told me he was on the case and I felt relieved. He’ll figure it out. My daughter and I got back in bed and soon her breaths became heavy with sleep again.
“What the f*ck was that?” I whispered again when I was sure she was out. “They are pinworms,” he replied gravely and showed me a photo on his phone of some other kid’s shit with exactly the same little white strings in it. “We probably all have them,” he continued. I immediately felt an itch in my butt.
“It says the most common signs of a pinworm infection are itching around the anus and restless sleep,” he continued and I experienced a strange brew of emotions: simultaneous clarity and horror. Suddenly everything that had been going on with my son made sense. “But why only at night?” I asked, dreading the answer. “They live in the intestines but at night the female worms come out and lay their eggs around the anus.” I think I gasped. “ARE YOU F*CKING KIDDING ME?!” He anticipated my next question. “They spread when humans ingest their eggs and their tiny eggs can live on surfaces for a long time. So really they could have gotten this literally anywhere they touched something and then ate something or touched their mouths.”
We decided it was best not to tell the kids of this worm circus unfolding inside their bodies. There was absolutely no good reason for them to know. We’d simply refer to it as an “infection” if we needed to talk about it. We learned a lot about pinworms that night. For example, we were actually lucky to have seen the worms! Lucky, I tell you! When pinworms are suspected but haven’t been visually confirmed, doctors will ask families to do a “tape test” which, no joke, consists of putting a piece of tape on the anus first thing in the morning for three days in a row and bringing that tape to your doctor so they can look for pinworm eggs under a microscope. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep that night.
The next morning I made the horrifying discovery of worms in my own poop. I began to fire off all caps texts to my closest friends. Most of them started with “THERE ARE WORMS IN MY BUTT.” The reaction was what you’d expect: a mix of horror and curiosity as well as a few jokes I wasn’t ready for yet but appreciated later. Two mom friends admitted that they had also had pinworms once. Why didn’t you tell me?!
When the pediatrician’s office opened, I called and updated the nurse with the dramatic developments of the night. She instructed us to pick up the over-the-counter pinworm medication and said all of us should take it. In two weeks, we’d need to take a second dose. We also needed to institute an aggressive hygiene regimen for the next few weeks, including washing all bedding every morning, not reusing any towels or rewearing clothing between washes, putting away all stuffed animals, daily vacuuming of any carpeted areas, keeping all surfaces as clean as possible, cutting fingernails short and of course, obsessive hand-washing. And by the way, these microscopic, and therefore invisible, eggs can survive on surfaces for 2-3 weeks and can also become airborne. We risked reinfection if one of us were to ingest them again.
As I scanned the shelves at our neighborhood Walgreens for the over-the-counter pinworm medication my thoughts raced. Where are you, sweet pinworm poison? Digestive aids? Funguses? They should put it with contraception because no one is getting pregnant while their family has pinworms. I couldn’t find the medication. With shame in my heart and a phantom itch in my butt, I got in line at the pharmacy counter and eventually an employee walked me over to the section where the medication should have been.
“It’s usually right here. Must be an outbreak or something.” Omg, did she just chuckle? I had a brief moment of panic at the thought that I wouldn’t be able to start poisoning the worms in our butts right away but there were, thankfully, two boxes left. “For the whole family,” was scrawled across the front of the packaging. That’s the one.
When I got home, I ripped the package open and read the instructions before tossing them both in the recycling so my kids wouldn’t see the word “worms.” Child literacy has its disadvantages at times. As I measured out the doses, it became clear that there wasn’t enough for all four of us. That whole “for the whole family” thing threw me off. F*ck, I should have bought the second box!
The humiliation of returning for a second time to the same Walgreens within 15 minutes to buy more butt worm medication was simply too great. So, I drove an extra seven cowardly minutes out of my way to get more medication from a different Walgreens where they also only had two boxes left. Maybe there really is some kind of outbreak. And just like that, the four of us had poisoned our worms and now all we had to do was wait 48-72 hours while the medication paralyzed them and they left our bodies.
I quickly found more and more humor in the situation. I even realized I was in good company when a friend texted me Kristen Bell's hilarious saga with pinworms from a few years before. (Thanks for always being so honest about the mom stuff, Kristen.)
“I would sleep naked with a floodlight shining on my asshole so they don’t come out,” a friend said as we speculated how the female worms even knew it was nighttime. We riffed back and forth about how we needed to launch an anal suppository company called Pinbomb that annihilates the pinworms in a single dose and fantasized about our pitch on Shark Tank. “Hey Sharks! Have you ever woken up to an itchy anus?!”
Despite my ability to laugh about it, trying not to think about the worms living rent-free inside our intestines became a full-time job. I also started inspecting all the poops, all the time. When my kids went number 2, they knew to call for me before they flushed. “Poop inspection!” became a familiar refrain. They didn’t know I was looking for worms, of course, but I gave them a sort of vague justification that “I need to check on the infection.” My husband is the only one whose poop I didn’t check. He claims he never saw any worms of his own, but given his inability to find clearly visible objects around our house, I guess I never really believed that they weren’t there.
Finally, the day came for us to take the second dose at the two-week mark. We didn’t experience a reinfection, thank Clorox et al! We’re back to being way behind on laundry which is truly our natural state and our house is only in the normal range of cleanliness which is to say not disgusting but also not that clean. This whole saga is fading at warp-speed into distant memory, as do most things these days. But one thing lingers: I still take a few moments to inspect my own poop every morning before I flush to make sure there aren’t worms in it. The other day, I recoiled in shock at the sight of a few little white strings and then I remembered that I had, in fact, eaten sprouts the day before and breathed a deep smelly sigh of relief. Will I check my poop forever? Maybe... Probably.