What Is Toxoplasmosis?
an infection caused by a parasite. This parasite is called Toxoplasma
gondii. It can be found in
cat feces and undercooked meat, especially venison, lamb, and pork. It can also
be transmitted through contaminated water. Toxoplasmosis can be deadly or cause
serious birth defects for a fetus if the mother becomes infected. This is why
doctors recommend against pregnant woman scooping or cleaning cat litter boxes.
Most people who have toxoplasmosis never have any symptoms at
all. According to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 60 million people in the
United States are infected with the parasite. The people who are most at risk
for serious infections are those with compromised immune systems and infants
born to mothers with active infection during their pregnancy.
What Are the Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis?
who’ve been infected with the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis show no signs
People who develop symptoms may experience:
- a fever
- swollen lymph nodes, especially in the neck
- a headache
- muscle aches and pains
- sore throat
These symptoms can last for a month or more and usually resolve
on their own.
Toxoplasmosis is especially serious for people who have weakened
immune systems. For these people, they’re at risk of developing:
- brain inflammation, causing headaches, seizures,
confusion and coma.
- a lung infection, causing cough, fever, and
shortness of breath
- an eye infection, causing blurry vision and eye
When a fetus is infected, the symptoms may be mild or quite
serious. Toxoplasmosis in an unborn baby can be life-threatening for the baby
soon after birth. Most newborns with congenital toxoplasmosis may appear normal
at birth but can develop signs and symptoms as they age. It’s particularly
important to check for involvement in their brain and eyes.
What Are the Causes of Toxoplasmosis?
T. gondii is the
parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. You can catch it from
contaminated meat that’s raw or not thoroughly cooked. You can also get
toxoplasmosis by drinking contaminated water. In rare cases, toxoplasmosis may
be transmitted through a blood transfusion or a transplanted organ.
The parasite can also exist in feces. This means it can be found
on some unwashed produce that has been contaminated with manure. Wash your
produce thoroughly to prevent toxoplasmosis.
In the United States, the parasite is found in cat feces. Although
T. gondii is found in nearly all warm-blooded animals, cats are the
only known hosts. This means that the parasite’s eggs only reproduce sexually
in cats. The eggs exit the feline’s body through excretion. Cats don’t usually
show symptoms of toxoplasmosis even though they’re hosts.
People become infected with toxoplasmosis only if they ingest the
parasite. This could happen when being exposed to contaminated cat feces. This
is most likely when cleaning out a litter box without washing your hands
Pregnant women have an increased risk of passing toxoplasmosis to
their unborn child in this manner. For this reason, you should ask someone else
to take care of the cat litter box during your pregnancy. If you absolutely
must clean out the box yourself, protect yourself with gloves and change the cat
litter box daily. The parasite isn’t infectious until one to five days after
It’s very rare for humans to get toxoplasmosis from cats.
Generally speaking, house cats that aren’t allowed outside don’t carry T.
gondii. Wild cats or cats that live outside and hunt are more likely to be
hosts of T. gondii.
In the United States, the most common way to get infected with
the toxoplasmosis parasite is by eating raw meat or unwashed fruits and
How Is Toxoplasmosis Diagnosed?
Your doctor will typically perform a blood test to check for
antibodies to this parasite. An antibody is a type of protein that your immune
system produces when it’s threatened by harmful substances. Antibodies detect
foreign substances by their surface markers, called antigens. Antigens include:
Once an antibody has developed against a particular antigen, it
will remain in your bloodstream to protect against future infections with that
particular foreign substance.
If you’ve ever been exposed to T. gondii, antibodies will be present in your blood. This means you
will test positive for the antibodies. If your tests come back positive, then
you’ve been infected with this disease at some point in your life. A positive
result doesn’t necessarily mean that you currently have an active infection.
If your tests come back positive for antibodies, your doctor
might do further testing to help figure out exactly when you were infected.
If you’re pregnant and have an active infection, your doctor may
test your amniotic fluid and the fetus’ blood. An ultrasound can also help
determine whether the fetus has been infected.
If your fetus is diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, you’ll probably be
referred to a specialist. Genetic counseling will also be suggested. The option
of ending the pregnancy, depending on the gestational age of the baby, may be
offered as a possibility. If you continue the pregnancy, your doctor will
likely prescribe antibiotics to help reduce your baby’s risk of symptoms.
What Complications Are Associated with
The reason that pregnant woman should take special precautions to
avoid toxoplasmosis is that it can be very serious, even fatal, for a baby
infected in the uterus. For those who survive, toxoplasmosis can have lasting
consequences on the:
They may also have mental and physical developmental delays and
In general, babies who are infected early during the pregnancy
suffer from more severe issues than those infected later in the pregnancy. Babies
born with toxoplasmosis may have a higher risk of hearing and vision losses.
Some children may be affected with learning disabilities
How Is Toxoplasmosis Treated?
Your doctor may recommend not treating your toxoplasmosis if it
isn’t causing any symptoms. Most healthy people who develop an infection don’t
have any symptoms or develop mild symptoms that are self-limited.
If the disease is severe, is persistent, involves the eyes, or
involves the internal organs, your doctor will typically prescribe pyrimethamine (Daraprim)
Pyrimethamine is also used to treat malaria. Sulfadiazine is an antibiotic.
If you have HIV or AIDS, you may need to continue these
medications for life. Pyrimethamine decreases your levels of folic acid, which
is a type of B vitamin. Your doctor may also ask you to take additional vitamin
B while taking the drug.
Treatment During Pregnancy
Treatment during pregnancy is somewhat different. Your course of
treatment will depend on whether your unborn child is infected and the severity
of the infection. Your doctor will talk with you about the best course for your
particular case. Most likely, you’ll be prescribed an antibiotic according to
how far along you are in your pregnancy to reduce the likelihood of
transmission to the fetus. An antibiotic called spiramycin is generally
recommended in the first and early second trimester. A combination of pyrimethamine/sulfadiazine
and leucovorin is generally used during the late second and third trimesters.
If your unborn baby has toxoplasmosis, pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine
may be considered as a treatment. However, both drugs have significant side effects
on women and the fetus and are only used as a last resort. The potential side
effects include suppression of the bone marrow that helps produce blood cells
and liver toxicity.
What Is the Outlook for People with Toxoplasmosis
The outlook for people with this condition depends on several
factors. Pregnant women who develop this condition will need to work with their
doctor to come up with a treatment plan that’s right for them. Babies born with
toxoplasmosis may receive treatments for up to a year.
People with AIDS and children with compromised immune systems may
need to be hospitalized for treatment to prevent complications.
If you aren’t pregnant and you don’t have any underlying health
conditions you should recover in several weeks. Your doctor may not prescribe
any treatments if your symptoms are mild and you’re otherwise healthy.
How Is Toxoplasmosis Prevented?
You can prevent toxoplasmosis by:
- washing all fresh produce before you eat it
- making sure all meat is properly cooked
- washing all utensils that are used to handle raw
- washing your hands after cleaning or scooping
Pregnant women should have someone else clean the cat litter box
during their pregnancy.