Toxoplasmosis is a disease you can get from infection with a parasite. The parasite is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii). Most people who are infected have no signs or symptoms and won’t need treatment. But toxoplasmosis can cause serious health problems for those with weakened immune systems and for infants who get the disease from their mothers.
What Causes Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is caused by infection with a parasite called T. gondii. Toxoplasmosis is divided into two types: acquired and congenital.
You can’t catch toxoplasmosis from a child or adult who is already infected. You need to ingest the parasite (get it into your body) to become infected. This can happen by:
- Eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. You can get T. gondii by eating raw or undercooked meat that contain the parasite. Drinking water, unwashed fruits and vegetables, and unpasteurized/raw dairy products can also be contaminated with T. gondii.
- Gardening. You can ingest the parasite from contaminated cat feces when gardening.
- Cleaning a cat’s litter box without washing your hands afterwards. The parasite can enter your body when you touch your mouth after cleaning a litter box with infected feces.
- Cross-contamination with unwashed knives/cutting boards. The parasite can be ingested after preparing meals with unwashed knives or cutting boards that came into contact with raw meat.
- Blood transfusion or organ transplant. Rarely, you can get T. gondii from a transplanted organ or a blood transfusion.
This is when toxoplasmosis is passed from an infected mother to her child during pregnancy. If a mother gets toxoplasmosis right before or during her pregnancy, it can be passed onto the child.
Most healthy people with toxoplasmosis do not know they are infected and will not have any symptoms. When people do have symptoms, they are very similar to the flu and can include:
- swollen lymph nodes (small, bean-shaped organs found in your groin, neck, and armpits that help the body fight infection)
- body aches and pains
These symptoms can last for weeks or months. They will usually go away on their own.
People with weakened immune systems
Your immune system can be weakened if you have HIV/AIDS, if you are having chemotherapy treatment, or if you take a type of medication called immunosuppressive drugs. In these cases, the body doesn’t fight infections as well as it should. For these people with toxoplasmosis, more serious signs of infection can include:
- severe headaches
- swelling of the brain from an infection called encephalitis (in some cases, this can cause death if not treated)
- muscle spasms
- changes in mood and personality
- lung problems
- weak or numb feeling on one side of the body
People at risk for ocular toxoplasmosis
Some people (including those with healthy immune systems) are at risk of getting ocular toxoplasmosis. Ocular toxoplasmosis causes inflammation of the retina, which is in the back of the eye. It can lead to blindness if not treated. Symptoms include:
Symptoms in babies
For unborn babies, toxoplasmosis can cause a miscarriage. Babies carried to term are often born with:
- low birth-weight
- enlarged liver or spleen
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- ocular toxoplasmosis
Many babies are born with no symptoms but still carry the infection. Some will develop problems years later like:
Most healthy people with toxoplasmosis who are not pregnant do not need treatment because their immune systems are able to fight off the disease.
For pregnant women with toxoplasmosis
In some cases, a combination of drugs is used to stop transmission of the disease from the mother to her unborn child. If the child does get toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, antibiotics may be used to control the disease.
For babies born with toxoplasmosis
When babies have symptoms of toxoplasmosis at birth, they may be treated with a combination of drugs including an anti-parasite drug and folinic acid.
For those with weakened immune systems
If you do not have toxoplasmosis, a drug may be used to prevent you from getting it. For those with toxoplasmosis, drugs can help control the symptoms. Side effects of these drugs can be more severe in a patient with a weakened immune system, so it is important to see your doctor(s) regularly.
Generally, when toxoplasmosis affects the eyes (ocular toxoplasmosis), it is best to be treated by an ophthalmologist. They are specially trained to treat inflammation of the retina.
How Can Toxoplasmosis Be Prevented?
There is no cure for toxoplasmosis. Once you have it, drugs can control symptoms but they don’t eliminate the parasite from your body. It’s best to focus on lowering your risk (and your unborn child’s risk) of getting toxoplasmosis.
Here are some steps you can take to prevent toxoplasmosis infection:
- Never eat raw or undercooked meat. Always cook meat to a temperature of at least 152 degrees. This kills the parasite.
- Wear gloves and wash hands thoroughly after working in the garden or handling soil.
- Wash cutting boards, knives, and hands thoroughly after cutting and handling raw meat.
- Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.
- Never eat/drink unpasteurized/raw dairy products.
- If you have a cat and want to limit your chance of toxoplasmosis, do not feed your cat raw meat or allow it to go outside and hunt. Keep pregnant women or immunocompromised members of your family away from the litter box and don’t let them clean it.
- If you are pregnant, plan on becoming pregnant, or have a weakened immune system, you should get a blood test for toxoplasmosis. Based on your results, your doctor can help develop a plan for prevention and/or treatment of toxoplasmosis.