Toxoplasmosis

What is toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It can live in a cat’s intestines and be spread through its feces. It also can live in dirt and on some food we eat.

What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis?

Most people do not show signs of toxoplasmosis. This is because their immune systems attack the parasite and prevent illness. You may have flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • fatigue
  • headache
  • body aches
  • fever
  • swollen lymph nodes (glands in your neck).

People who have a weak immune system may have worse symptoms. These can include:

  • confusion
  • blurry vision
  • trouble with balance and coordination
  • seizures
  • lung problems.

You may have a weak immune system if you:

  • Have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
  • Have cancer.
  • Have had an organ transplant.

What causes toxoplasmosis?

People get toxoplasmosis when they come into contact with the parasite. This can happen in several ways.

You can get it through food if you:

  • Eat raw or undercooked meat, especially pork, lamb, or wild game.
  • Touch something, such as a cutting board or dish, that has been in contact with raw or undercooked meat and then touch your mouth, eyes, or face.
  • Eat unwashed raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Drink water with the parasite in it.

Cats can carry the parasite, especially if they hunt animals or eat raw meat. You can expose yourself to the parasite through your cat’s feces, either in its litter or in dirt that has cat droppings in it. You also can get it from touching anything that has been in contact with cat droppings.

People who have an organ transplant or a blood transfusion can get toxoplasmosis if the organ or blood is infected. This is very rare.

How is toxoplasmosis diagnosed?

Routine screening for toxoplasmosis is not recommended. Contact you doctor if you have symptoms or are at risk. They will do a blood test to check for the parasite. If the test is positive, your doctor will check to see if the infection is active or not.

Talk to your doctor if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, or if you have a weak immune system. These people are at an increased risk.

Can toxoplasmosis be prevented or avoided?

There are many things you can do to protect yourself and prevent toxoplasmosis.

  • Wear gloves when you work outside. Cover children’s sandboxes when not in use. Cats often use gardens and sandboxes as litter boxes.
  • Wash your hands after being outside, especially before you eat or prepare food.
  • Wash your hands after touching cats, soil, or raw meat.
  • Wash or peel all fruits and vegetables before eating them.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or face when preparing food.
  • Use hot soapy water to clean items that have been in contact with raw meat.
  • Clean the counter after preparing food.
  • Cook meat and poultry until it is no longer pink in the center or until the juices run clear.
  • Avoid eating undercooked meat and unwashed fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid drinking untreated water. This is more common in underdeveloped countries. Avoid drinking unpasteurized (raw) goat’s milk or eating raw eggs.
  • Control flies and cockroaches as much as possible. They can spread contaminated soil or cat feces onto food.

If you are at risk, you should take extra precautions.

  • Keep your cat indoors so that it does not pick up the parasite.
  • Feed your cat only dry or canned cat food. Like humans, cats can become infected by eating raw or undercooked meat.
  • Avoid touching outdoor or stray cats.
  • Have someone else take care of your cat or change your cat’s litter box while you are pregnant. If you have to change the cat litter yourself, wear gloves while you do it. When you finish, wash your hands well with soap and warm water. Clean the litter box daily. Disinfect it with boiling water for 5 minutes.

How is toxoplasmosis treated?

Healthy people who are not at risk do not need treatment for toxoplasmosis. Any symptoms you may have should go away within a few weeks or months. If you are pregnant or have a weak immune system, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.

Living with toxoplasmosis

Women who get toxoplasmosis while pregnant are at risk of passing it to their unborn babies. In most cases, infected babies are born healthy but may have future health issues. These include damage to the eyes and brain.

Women who were infected at least 6 to 9 months before pregnancy should have immunity. This means the infection will not be active during pregnancy, and the risk of passing it to your baby is low.

There is no benefit to testing your cat’s droppings for toxoplasmosis. Once cats are infected, they only spread the parasite in their droppings for the first few weeks.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • Should I be screened for toxoplasmosis?
  • Is it safe for me to keep and pet my cat while pregnant?
  • Do I need treatment?
  • What medicines should I take and what are the side effects?
  • How do I know if my unborn baby has toxoplasmosis?
  • What are the possible health issues my unborn baby could have?
  • Once I have toxoplasmosis, will I always have it?
  • Am I at risk of having other health issues?
  • My cat doesn’t go outside. Could it still get toxoplasmosis?
  • Is it safe for me to eat rare meat?
  • How hot should the water be when I clean my cutting board?
  • Is there a specific kind of cutting board that is safer to use?
  • Are automatic litter boxes safer than regular litter boxes?