Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection caused by a single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, and is most commonly obtained as a result of consuming undercooked meat, unpasteurized dairy products, and contaminated soil or water.
While this parasitic infection affects more than 40 million people in the United States, infection does not necessarily lead to severe outcomes in all cases. In fact, many healthy individuals may become infected and experience little to no symptoms. When it comes to pregnancy however, some additional concern may be warranted to avoid infection and limit the chance for pregnancy complications.
How Toxoplasma Spreads
While individual infection can be of concern for some with weakened immune systems, for pregnant women the risk for toxoplasmosis becomes a concern due to the fact that infection can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy. Thus, knowing how the parasitic infection is spread and obtained is important for ensuring safe prevention methods.
- Soil: Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that causes the infection, can be found in soil worldwide. The parasite is often transmitted to humans through contact with contaminated soil and can also be found in sandboxes and on playground equipment that has been contaminated by the parasite.
- Water: The parasite can also spread through contaminated water. This includes both fresh and saltwater sources, and is often found in stagnant water or ponds where animals have defecated.
- Animals: Animals are often carriers of the toxoplasma gondii parasite. Cats are the most common source of infection for humans, but other animals, such as dogs, sheep, and pigs, can also carry the parasite. Infected animals shed the parasite in their feces, contaminating soil or water and cleaning litter boxes or coming in contact with contaminated feces is a possible spread risk.
- Food: Eating undercooked and contaminated meat, such as pork, lamb, and venison; or contaminated shellfish, such as oysters, clams or mussels, is the most common food-related spread. Additional food-related spreads can be done so by consuming unpasteurized and contaminated dairy products such as milk.
Although toxoplasma cannot be absorbed through intact skin, accidental ingestion of the parasite is possible after handling contaminated and undercooked foods, knives, utensils and cutting boards without washing hands thoroughly.
While individual infection can be of concern for some with weakened immune systems, for pregnant women the risk for toxoplasmosis becomes a concern due to the fact that infection can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy.
Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis
While some individuals may contract the parasite with no symptoms, some pregnant women who contract the infection may experience flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, and muscle aches. In severe cases, the infection can also lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature birth, and in cases where the infection is passed from mother to baby in the womb, babies may be born with the infection and experience eye or brain damage or develop seizures later in life as a result.
Additional possible symptoms may include one or more of the following symptoms:
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Jointly pain
Treatment for Toxoplasmosis
There is no cure for toxoplasmosis, and no specific treatment for the infection during pregnancy. However, your doctor may recommend treating the infection in one of two ways if it is severe and symptoms are experienced. In these cases, possible treatments may include:
- Antibiotics: These are typically prescribed for pregnant women who develop toxoplasmosis for the first time during their pregnancy and individuals experiencing symptoms.
- Anti-parasitic medications: These may be prescribed if you have a history of toxoplasmosis or if the infection and symptoms are severe.
In most cases, toxoplasmosis infection will not cause any problems for women or their unborn baby. However, it is vital to speak with a doctor if you think you may have been exposed to the infection, to ensure proper monitoring is done and treatments are administered if needed.
Prevention of Toxoplasmosis
While infection of toxoplasmosis may sound scary, the good news is that it is easily prevented with preventive measures. To ensure you do not contract this infection, be sure to follow the following preventative measures at all times:
- Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after any contact with animal feces, soil, contaminated utensils, or raw meat or shellfish.
- Wear gloves when gardening to avoid contact with contaminated soil.
- Avoid consuming undercooked or raw meat and shellfish, or unpasteurized dairy products.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them to remove any possible remnants of contaminated soil or feces.
- Keep cats indoors and do not allow them to hunt, to limit exposure to contaminated animals, soil or water.
Toxoplasmosis can be a severe infection for pregnant women and their baby’s in some cases. While there is no need to panic, it is vital that pregnant women who think they may have been exposed to the parasite should contact their healthcare provider immediately, to get the treatment needed to keep mother and baby healthy. Likewise, it is important to take toxoplasmosis seriously and always practice safe and healthy daily hygiene to limit risk of infection.