Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. More than 60 million people in the U.S. have this parasite. Most of them don't get sick. But the parasite causes serious problems for some people. These include people with weak immune systems and babies whose mothers become infected for the first time during pregnancy. Problems can include damage to the brain, eyes, and other organs.
Most healthy people who are infected with toxoplasmosis have no signs or symptoms and aren't aware that they're infected. Some people, however, develop signs and symptoms similar to those of the flu, including:
- Body aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
T. gondii is the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. You can catch it from contaminated meat. You can also get toxoplasmosis by drinking contaminated water. In rare cases, toxoplasmosis may be transmitted through a blood transfusion or a transplanted organ. The parasite can also exist in feces. This means it can be found on some unwashed produce that has been contaminated with manure. Wash your produce thoroughly to prevent toxoplasmosis.
In the United States, this parasite is found in cat feces. Although T. gondii is found in warm-blooded animals and cats are the only known hosts. This means that the parasite’s eggs only reproduce sexually in cats. The eggs exit the feline’s body through excretion. Cats don’t usually show symptoms of toxoplasmosis even though they’re hosts. People become infected with toxoplasmosis only if they ingest the parasite.
What should I do if I think I am at risk for severe toxoplasmosis?
If you are planning to become pregnant, your health care provider may test you for Toxoplasma gondii. If the test is positive it means you have already been infected sometime in your life. There usually is little need to worry about passing the infection to your baby. If you are already pregnant, you and your health care provider should discuss your risk for toxoplasmosis. Your health care provider may order a blood sample for testing.
If you have a weakened immune system, ask your doctor about having your blood tested for Toxoplasma. If your test is positive, your doctor can tell you if and when you need to take medicine to prevent the infection from reactivating.
Certain precautions can help prevent toxoplasmosis:
- Wear gloves when you garden or handle soil. Wear gloves whenever you work outdoors and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water afterward.
- Don't eat raw or undercooked meat. Meat, especially lamb, pork and beef, can harbor toxoplasma organisms. Don't taste meat before it's fully cooked. Avoid raw cured meat.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables. Scrub fresh fruits and vegetables, especially if you plan to eat them raw. Remove peels when possible, but only after washing.
- Don't drink unpasteurized milk. Unpasteurized milk and other dairy products may contain toxoplasma parasites.
Once a diagnosis of toxoplasmosis is confirmed, you and your doctor can discuss whether treatment is necessary. In an otherwise healthy person who is not pregnant, treatment usually is not needed. If symptoms occur, they typically go away within a few weeks to months. For pregnant women or persons who have weakened immune systems, medications are available to treat toxoplasmosis.
The outlook for people with this condition depends on several factors. Pregnant women who develop this condition will need to work with their doctor to come up with a treatment plan that’s right for them. Babies born with toxoplasmosis may receive treatments for up to a year. People with AIDS and children with compromised immune systems may need to be hospitalized for treatment to prevent complications. If you aren’t pregnant and you don’t have any underlying health conditions you should recover in several weeks. Your doctor may not prescribe any treatments if your symptoms are mild and you’re otherwise healthy.