Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite is found throughout the world, with greater presence in regions with warmer climates.. Pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems should be cautious about being exposed because a Toxoplasma infection can cause serious problems. It is believed that more than 60 million people in the United States probably carry the Toxoplasma parasite, but very few have symptoms because their immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness.
Toxoplasmosis is acquired through accidental ingestion of:
1. Contaminated cat feces. This can occur if you accidentally touch your hands to your mouth after gardening, cleaning a catís litter box, or touching anything that has come into contact with cat feces.
2. Through ingestion of raw or partly cooked meat, especially pork, lamb, or venison, or by touching your hands to your mouth after handling undercooked meat. Through contamination of knives, utensils, cutting boards and other foods that have had contact with raw meat.
3. Through drinking water contaminated with Toxoplasma.
4. Although extremely rare, by receiving an infected organ transplant or blood transfusion.
Most people who become infected with toxoplasmosis do not even know it. The immune system reacts against the living parasite, causing it to hide in an inactive form (cyst) in tissues throughout the body, usually the skeletal muscles and the brain. You may feel like you have the "flu," swollen lymph glands, or muscle aches and pains that last for a month or more. Rarely, a person with a "normal" immune system may develop eye damage from toxoplasmosis.
Persons with weak immune systems, such as infants, those with HIV/AIDS, those taking certain types of chemotherapy, or persons who have recently received an organ transplant, may develop severe toxoplasmosis. This can cause damage to the brain or the eyes. Most infants who are infected while in the womb have no symptoms at birth but may develop symptoms later in life. Only a small percentage of infected newborns have serious eye or brain damage at birth.
If the initial infection occurs in an individual with a weakened immune system, severe symptoms can develop including:
- Severe Headache
- Confusion/Mental Deterioration
- Poor Coordination
- Potential complications include: eye damage, brain damage and death.
Infants born to mothers who became infected with Toxoplasma for the first time during or just before pregnancy are at risk for severe toxoplasmosis. So are persons with severely weakened immune systems. This results from an acute
Toxoplasma infection or an infection that occurred earlier in life that reactivates and causes damage to the brain, eyes, or other organs.
There are several different kinds of blood tests for toxoplasmosis. The results from the different tests can help your provider determine if you have Toxoplasma infection and if the infection is recent.
If you are planning to become pregnant, your health care provider may test you for Toxoplasma. 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 the test is negative, take necessary precautions to avoid infection. 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 or are pregnant there are some steps to take to avoid being exposed to Toxoplasma.Cats. Help prevent your cat from becoming infected with Toxoplasma. Keep it indoors and feed it dry or canned cat food. A cat can become infected by eating infected prey or being fed raw or undercooked meat infected with the parasite.
Do not bring a new cat into your house that might have spent time out of doors or might have been fed raw meat. Avoid stray cats and kittens and their adopted habitat. Your veterinarian can answer any other questions you may have regarding your cat and risk for toxoplasmosis.
Have someone who is healthy and not pregnant change your cat's litter box daily. If this is not possible, wear gloves and clean the litter box daily (the parasite found in cat feces needs one or more days after being passed to become infectious.) Wash your hands well with soap and water afterwards.
Cats spread Toxoplasma in their feces for only a few weeks of their lives, usually after they are first infected with the parasite. Like humans, cats rarely have symptoms when first infected, so most people do not know if their cat has been infected with Toxoplasma. It is not helpful to have your cat or your cat's feces tested for Toxoplasma.
Wear gloves when you garden or do anything outdoors that involves handling soil. Cats, which may pass the parasite in their feces, often use gardens and sandboxes as litter boxes.Handling / Cooking Meat. When preparing raw meat, wash any cutting boards, sinks, knives, and other utensils that might have touched the raw meat thoroughly with soap and hot water to avoid cross-contaminating other foods. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling raw meat.
Cook all meat thoroughly; that is, to an internal temperature of 160į F and until it is no longer pink in the center or until the juices become colorless. Do not taste meat before it is fully cooked.
Once a diagnosis of toxoplasmosis is confirmed in an otherwise healthy person who is not pregnant, treatment usually is not needed. Symptoms typically go away within a few weeks. For pregnant women or persons who have weakened immune systems, drugs are available to treat toxoplasmosis.