Who should be worried?
When you hear the word toxoplasmosis, what’s the first thing you think of? For some people, it’s pregnant women. For others, it might be cats. Neither group is wrong. What exactly does either of these have to do with the condition? How serious is a toxoplasmosis infection? What can be done to treat it? Is there a way to prevent it?
Toxoplasmosis is the condition that results from an infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which is one of the most common parasites in the world. It can infect most animals and birds. However, it’s only excreted in cat feces, making domestic and wild cats the primary host. This means you can become infected if you come into contact with cat feces. Usually, this occurs accidentally, such as when gardening outside or cleaning a litter box. You’re likely to be infected if you consume undercooked meats, especially lamb, venison, and pork, eat unpasteurized dairy products or drink contaminated water. Eating unwashed fruits and vegetables and not washing knives, cutting boards, and other utensils are also ways to contract the parasite. Mothers can pass it to their unborn children.
When you become infected with the parasite, it forms cysts that can affect any part of the body. If you’re healthy, your immune system keeps them inactive. This provides you with immunity so you can’t become infected again. However, if your immune system is weakened by disease or certain medications, the infection can be reactivated, leading to severe complications.
Healthy individuals are likely not to have any symptoms. If someone does develop any, they’re often flu-like, such as body aches, swollen lymph nodes, headache, fever, and fatigue. People with weakened immune systems, like those with HIV/AIDS, receiving chemotherapy, or have a history of an organ transplant, are more likely to have severe symptoms, including confusion, poor coordination, seizures, blurred vision, and lung problems. If a fetus is infected, the severity of symptoms is related to the stage of pregnancy when the mother got sick. The baby is most at risk if the mother contracts the infection during the third trimester. However, the earlier in pregnancy the infection occurs, the more serious the outcome usually is. Often, early infections result in stillbirth or miscarriage. Infants that survive often have seizures, enlarged spleen/liver, jaundice (yellowing of their skin and eyes), and severe eye infections. Sometimes, these symptoms don’t appear until the child is in their teens or later.
To diagnose a toxoplasmosis infection, you’ll need to be tested, especially pregnant women who might have been exposed. If tested early in the course of the disease (before your body has a chance to produce antibodies), you might have a negative result. To be sure, you may need to get retested several weeks later. However, a negative test result means you’ve never been infected and therefore aren’t immune to the disease in most cases. A positive result could mean that you have an active infection or that you were once infected and are immune to the disease. Additional tests can pinpoint when the infection occurred based on the types of antibodies in your blood. If you are pregnant and have a current toxoplasmosis infection, the next step is to determine whether your baby also is infected. Tests your doctor may recommend are amniocentesis or ultrasound.
Most healthy people don’t need treatment. If you’re healthy but have symptoms of an acute toxoplasmosis infection, you’ll be given medication. This usually involves pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine. If you have HIV/AIDS, your doctor will also recommend taking folinic acid. For pregnant women, if the infection occurs after the 16th week of pregnancy, you’ll receive the same treatment as a person with HIV/AIDS. If the infection happens before the 16th week of pregnancy, you probably get spiramycin. For infants, the treatment is the same as an infection in the later stages of pregnancy.
There are things that you can do to prevent toxoplasmosis. One of the most important is not eating raw or undercooked meats, especially lamb, pork, and beef. Also, avoid raw cured meats. It’s vital to wash all fruits, vegetables, and utensils thoroughly. Another tip is not to consume unpasteurized dairy products. When working out in the garden or handling soil, be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands afterward. Keep children’s sandboxes covered so that cats won’t use them as a litter box.
If you have cats, it’s essential to keep them healthy by not letting them outside and feeding them dry and/or canned cat food. Don’t give them raw meat. If you’re pregnant or have a compromised immune system, have someone else clean your cats’ litter box. If this isn’t possible, wear gloves and a face mask when changing the litter. This should be done daily to prevent excreted cysts from becoming infectious. Another vital thing is to avoid stray cats or kittens since they’re more likely to carry the parasite.
Toxoplasmosis is a very serious infection, especially for those who are at increased risk of having complications. The good news is there are ways to prevent it. If you have any questions or concerns about toxoplasmosis, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s toxoplasmosis page at https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/toxoplasmosis/