What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an illness caused by a germ known as Toxoplasma gondii. It is spread to people from undercooked meat or contact with cat feces (waste). While most people will not experience symptoms, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems should be cautious as toxoplasmosis may cause serious health problems for these individuals.
How is it spread?
The parasite can be spread by the consumption of undercooked meat (especially pork, lamb, and venison) or by other foods that have had contact with raw meat.
Toxoplasma gondii can also accidentally be swallowed after contact with cat feces. This may occur from cleaning a cat’s litter box or by touching anything that has come into contact with cat feces (such as soil in a garden containing cat feces).
The infection may also be passed from a pregnant mother to her child (congenital).
Who gets toxoplasmosis?
Many people carry Toxoplasma gondii, but few experience symptoms. Pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems are the most likely to experience severe symptoms.
What are the symptoms?
Most people who are carrying Toxoplasma gondii are not aware of it, though some will experience flu-like symptoms with swollen lymph glands or aching muscles.
An infection from earlier in life can come back and cause more severe symptoms such as damage to the brain, eyes, or other organs. This is most likely to occur in individuals with weakened immune systems.
Toxoplasmosis can also occur in the eye, most likely from reactivation of an infection passed from mother to child, and may cause eye pain, blurred vision, or possible permanent damage. This may include blindness if the infection is untreated.
What should I do if I think I am at risk?
If you are planning to become pregnant, your healthcare provider may order a blood sample to test for Toxoplasma gondii. If the test is negative, you should take the necessary precautions to avoid infection (see below).
If you are already pregnant or have a weakened immune system, you should discuss your risk for toxoplasmosis with your doctor. A blood sample can test for the illness and your doctor can decide if you will need to take a medication.
What should I do if I think I have this illness?
If you are concerned that you may have toxoplasmosis, you should visit your healthcare provider. Your doctor may order a variety of blood tests that are specific to toxoplasmosis. These tests will determine whether or not you are infected and if it is a recent infection.
What is the treatment?
Otherwise healthy individuals who are not pregnant generally do not need treatment for toxoplasmosis. If symptoms occur, they will usually resolve within weeks or months. Medications are available to treat toxoplasmosis for pregnant women or persons who have weakened immune systems.
If I know I am at risk, can I keep my cat?
Yes, even if you are at risk (pregnant or immunocompromised), you can keep your cat; however, there are some safety precautions that you should take.
- Ensure that the litter box is cleaned daily. It can take 1 to 5 days before cat feces can spread toxoplasmosis.
- If possible, avoid changing the litter box yourself. If no one else is available, be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands immediately afterwards.
- Keep cats indoors.
- Do not interact with stray cats and do not adopt a new cat while you are pregnant.
- Feed cats canned or died commercial food, not raw or undercooked meats.
Will I know if my cat is infected?
Cats rarely show signs of toxoplasmosis, so most people will never know if their cat is infected. Toxoplasma shedding in feces will go away on its own, so testing your cat for Toxoplasma generally is not helpful. If you know that you are infected, you should follow procedures for toxoplasmosis in humans (see above).
How can I prevent getting toxoplamosis from food?
Following general food safety guidelines can help prevent toxoplasmosis from food. This includes 1.) Wash your hands often, 2.) Keep raw foods that need cooking away from foods that are ready to eat, 3.) Make sure food is well cooked, 4.) Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold before serving, and 5.) Do not leave food out for more than two hours, or one hour on warm, summer days. To learn more about preventing the germs that can cause food poisoning (also known as foodborne illness), click here.