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What is toxoplasmosis, and how do you get it?
Toxoplasmosis (say: tox-oh-plaz-moh-sis) is an infection caused by a tiny parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It lives in the intestines of animals such as cats and pigs.
What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis?
Most people have no symptoms because their immune system keeps the parasite from causing illness. Sometimes people who have toxoplasmosis experience flu-like symptoms, such as:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Body aches
In people who have a weak immune system, toxoplasmosis can cause serious medical problems, such as:
- Blurry vision
- Trouble with balance and coordination
- Problems with the lungs
Your immune system can become weak for a number of reasons. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection leading to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) can weaken the immune system. So can some kinds of cancer chemotherapy or medicines that are taken after an organ transplant.
What happens if I have it while I’m pregnant?
If you become infected while pregnant, your unborn child may also become infected. Infected babies may not develop any disease, or they may become very ill, with serious damage to the brain and eyes.
If you have been infected previously (at least 6 to 9 months before your pregnancy) with toxoplasma, you will develop immunity to it. The infection will not be active when you become pregnant, and so there is rarely a risk to your baby.
Causes & Risk Factors
How do you get toxoplasmosis?
You can get toxoplasmosis in the following ways:
- By swallowing the parasite in cat litter or dirt that has cat droppings in it. This can happen if you put your hands to your mouth after gardening, cleaning a cat litter box or touching anything that has been in contact with cat droppings. Cats sometimes carry the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, especially if they hunt animals or are fed raw meat.
- By eating raw or undercooked meat, especially pork, lamb or wild game.
- By touching something, such as a cutting board or dish, that has been in contact with raw or undercooked meat and then putting your hands in or near your mouth.
- By eating unwashed raw fruits and vegetables, or drinking water with the parasite in it.
People who have an organ transplant or a blood transfusion can also get toxoplasmosis if the organ or blood were infected. However, this rarely happens.
Diagnosis & Tests
How do I know I have toxoplasmosis?
Routine screening for toxoplasmosis is not recommended. However, if you are at risk for toxoplasmosis because you have a weak immune system, your doctor might want you to have a blood test.
How is toxoplasmosis treated?
Toxoplasmosis is usually treated with antibiotics.
How can I keep from getting toxoplasmosis?
The following are some things you can do to protect yourself from getting toxoplasmosis:
- Wear gloves when you work in the dirt. Cover children’s sandboxes when not in use. Cats often use gardens and sandboxes as litter boxes.
- After outdoor activities, wash your hands with soap and warm water, especially before you eat or prepare food.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meat, soil, sand or cats.
- Control flies and cockroaches as much as possible. They can spread contaminated soil or cat feces onto food.
- Use hot soapy water to clean cutting boards, dishes and other items after they have been in contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, unwashed fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid rubbing your eyes or face when preparing food, and wipe the counter clean afterwards.
- Cook meat and poultry until it is no longer pink in the center or until the juices run clear (160°F on a meat thermometer). Do not taste meat before it is fully cooked.
- When dining out, do not eat undercooked meat.
- Avoid eating unwashed fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid drinking untreated water, especially when traveling in less developed countries. Also avoid drinking unpasteurized (raw) goat’s milk, raw eggs or unpasteurized products made from goat’s milk.
I have a cat. Can I keep it?
Yes. If your immune system is weak, here are some things you can do to keep from getting toxoplasmosis:
- Keep your cat indoors so that it does not pick up the toxoplasmosis parasite from the animals it hunts.
- If possible, have someone else take care of your cat while you are pregnant.
- Feed your cat only dry or canned cat food. Like humans, cats can become infected with toxoplasmosis by eating raw or undercooked meat.
- Do not bring a new cat into your house if the animal might have been an outdoor cat or might have been fed raw meat. Do not handle stray cats or kittens.
- Have a person who is healthy and not pregnant change your cat’s litter box, and then disinfect it with boiling water for 5 minutes. 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.
Cats only spread toxoplasmosis in their droppings for a few weeks in their lives (usually after they are first infected), so there is no benefit to having your cat’s droppings tested for the toxoplasmosis parasite.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- I have a cat and I just found out I’m pregnant. Should I be screened for toxoplasmosis?
- Is it safe for me to pet my cat while I’m pregnant?
- What treatment is best for me?
- How will I know if my unborn baby is infected with toxoplasma?
- How can I protect my unborn baby?
- Is rare steak safe for me to eat?
- My cat doesn’t go outside. Is it still possible that he/she could have toxoplasmosis?
- How hot should the water be when I clean my cutting board?
- Is there one kind of cutting board that is safest to use?
- Are automatic litter boxes safer than regular litter boxes?
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Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.