What is toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis: Overview

Toxoplasmosis is a common infection caused by a parasite. You get it from eating undercooked meat, eating unwashed vegetables (grown where an infected cat has left droppings), or touching infected cat droppings.

Most healthy people who get the disease don't know they have it. It is very mild. But problems can happen when you are pregnant and get the disease. It can cause serious problems in an unborn baby. If you are pregnant, take steps to prevent infection.

Your unborn baby may not get infected even if you get toxoplasmosis while pregnant. If tests show that your unborn baby is infected, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. After you have been infected, you can't get the disease again.

Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a common infection in people, birds, and animals that often is not noticed or may cause mild flu-like symptoms. But the infection can cause problems for a fetus (when the mother becomes infected) and for people who have weakened immune systems.

Human infection usually happens when a person eats food that contains the toxoplasmosis parasite, such as undercooked meat from an infected animal. You also can get infected by touching an infected cat or its feces. Most people develop an immunity during the 2 months after the infection.

  • Infection during pregnancy is rare. In most parts of North America, infected newborns are very rare. Toxoplasmosis can cause blindness or brain damage in an infected infant. Pregnant women and newborns who have toxoplasmosis are treated with antibiotics.
  • People who have impaired immune systems are vulnerable to severe toxoplasmosis. They can develop life-threatening infections in the brain, lungs, or heart, as well as eye damage. Antibiotics are used to prevent toxoplasmosis as well as to aggressively treat the infection.

What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis?

Most people with toxoplasmosis don't have symptoms. But some people have flu-like symptoms. Severe toxoplasmosis can damage the eyes or brain. It can also affect the lungs and heart. Symptoms depend on which part of the body is affected. Infants infected before birth may have serious mental or physical problems.

How is toxoplasmosis treated?

In an otherwise healthy person who is not pregnant, treatment is not needed. Symptoms will usually go away within a few weeks.

For people who are pregnant or have weakened immune systems, medicines are available to treat toxoplasmosis.

How can you help prevent toxoplasmosis?

Because toxoplasmosis usually has no symptoms or only mild symptoms, most people don't need to worry about getting it. But if you have a weakened immune system or are pregnant, you should take steps to prevent toxoplasmosis.

  • Wear gloves when you garden or do anything outdoors that involves handling soil. Cats may pass the parasite in their feces and often use gardens and sandboxes as litter boxes. Wash your hands well with soap and warm water after outdoor activities, especially before you eat or prepare any food.
  • Have someone who is healthy and not pregnant handle raw meat for you. If this is not possible, wear clean disposable gloves when you touch raw meat, and wash cutting boards, sinks, knives, and other utensils that might have touched the raw meat. Wash your hands well with soap and warm water afterwards.
  • Cook foods until they are well done. Use a meat thermometer to be sure foods are cooked to a safe temperature. Do not use the color of the meat (such as when it is no longer "pink") to tell you that it is done.

Cats can spread Toxoplasma gondii in their feces. Don't bring a cat into your house that might have been an outdoor cat or might have been fed raw meat. Avoid handling stray cats and kittens. If you have a cat:

  • Help prevent your cat from getting infected with Toxoplasma gondii. Keep the cat indoors, and feed it dry or canned cat food. Cats can become infected by eating or being fed raw or undercooked meat.
  • Have someone who is healthy and not pregnant change your cat's litter box. If this is not possible, wear gloves and clean the litter box daily. Wash your hands well with soap and warm water afterwards.

How is toxoplasmosis diagnosed?

If you think you may have toxoplasmosis, talk to your doctor. You may need blood tests to see if you've been infected. If you have a weak immune system, or if you're pregnant or planning to become pregnant, discuss your risk with your doctor. They may suggest that you get tested.

How can you care for yourself when you have toxoplasmosis?

  • Take your antibiotics as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • To prevent toxoplasmosis:
    • Do not clean a cat's litter box while you are pregnant. Have someone else clean it. If no one else can do it, wear gloves and clean the litter box daily. Wash your hands well with soap and warm water afterward.
    • Wash your hands after you work in the garden or handle soil.
    • Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables by rinsing them well with running water.
    • Handle raw meat safely. Wash cutting boards and other utensils that might have touched raw meat. Wash your hands well with soap and warm water afterward.
    • Make sure the meat you eat is well cooked.
    • Avoid untreated drinking water.

When do cats spread toxoplasmosis?

Cats only spread Toxoplasma gondii in their feces for a few weeks after they are first infected with the parasite. They rarely have symptoms when first infected, so most people don't know whether their cat has been exposed to Toxoplasma gondii. Good tests are not available to determine whether your cat is passing Toxoplasma gondii in its feces.

Your veterinarian can answer other questions you may have about your cat and the risk for toxoplasmosis.

What causes toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis can result from:

  • Accidentally swallowing Toxoplasma gondii eggs from soil or other contaminated surfaces. This can happen by putting your hands to your mouth after gardening, cleaning a cat's litter box, or touching anything that has come into contact with cat feces.
  • Eating raw or partly cooked meat, especially pork, lamb, or venison, or touching your hands to your mouth after touching the meat.

If you are pregnant when first infected with Toxoplasma gondii, you can give the infection to your baby.

You may also receive it through an organ transplantation or a transfusion, although this is rare.

What is toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Most people who become infected don't have symptoms. This is because the immune system is usually able to fight the disease. Toxoplasmosis is dangerous to a pregnant woman and her fetus.

Toxoplasmosis: When to call

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You think you may have toxoplasmosis or have been exposed to it.

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