What is Toxoplasmosis and Can It Hurt Me or My Baby?

What is Toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by the microscopic parasite Toxoplasma Gondii.  It is found primarily in the feces of cats, in contaminated water, soil, or produce, and in raw or undercooked meats.  About half of toxoplasmosis infections are caused by eating infected meat but pregnant women are usually warned about staying away from their kitty’s litterboxes due to the risk of contracting the infection from their kitty’s feces.

Severe toxoplasmosis causes damage to the brain, eyes, and organs. Most infants that are infected in utero have no symptoms at birth but may develop symptoms later on in life.  A small number may have serious eye or brain damage at birth.

Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis

Most people that get this sickness don’t even know they have it as they don’t get any symptoms.  However, for those that do the symptoms of toxoplasmosis are very similar to the common cold or a light flu.  They can include fever, swollen lymph nodes, muscle aches, and tiredness.

There are severe cases that cause brain damage and ocular damage, but this is very rare.  They include those with seriously compromised immune systems and infants born to mothers that have been newly infected with the parasite.

How can I avoid getting toxoplasmosis?

Chances are, unless you’ve just gotten your kitty for the first time, you’ve already had it and have some immunity to it.  However, according to the CDC, only 15% of women of childbearing age are immune.  If the mother contracts it during her first trimester her baby is in the greatest risk of infection.  Your baby’s risk goes up as the pregnancy progresses but the severity of the infection to the baby is highest during the first trimester.

To prevent becoming infected it is important to observe general food safety guidelines and keep good sanitation while handling raw meat and cat feces.

* Cook all your meat thoroughly and allow the meat the sit for a few minutes to ensure it is cooked thoroughly.

* Make sure you sanitize all your cooking utensils and surfaces.

* If you need to clean the litterbox it is important to wear gloves and to wash your hands afterwards.  Ideally, ask someone else to clean the litterbox.

* While gardening consider wearing gloves.  Kitty’s love using dirt for their litterboxes.  Also, remember that your kitty may not be the only kitty in the neighborhood that is using your garden area as their litterbox.  Even if you don’t have a cat you should consider taking some precautions.

* Teach your children to wash their hands regularly to prevent infection.

* Peel or wash your produce thoroughly.

* Have the litterbox changed daily.  The CDC says “the parasite does not become infectious until 1 to 5 days after it is shed in a cat’s feces”.

* Don’t handle stray cats and don’t get a new cat while expecting.

What if I suspect I have the sickness?

If you suspect you have toxoplasmosis then you need to see your care provider and order a special blood test just for this.  The regular blood test your midwife or doctor orders doesn’t cover this parasite.  It will show if you have the infection and if you were recently infected.

A normal healthy individual doesn’t need to do anything if they become infected.  However, there are medications available for those that are medically compromised.  You can talk to your doctor about this if your immune system is in a weakened state (AIDS, those taking chemotherapy, etc.) or if you are expecting.