Division of Epidemiology
275 East Main Street
Frankfort, KY 40621
What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a single-celled parasite named Toxoplasma gondii and it is found throughout the world. More than 60 million people in the United States are probably infected with the Toxoplasma parasite, but very few have symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness.
How can I get toxoplasmosis?
Eating raw or partly cooked meat, especially pork, lamb or venison, or touching your hands to your mouth after handling meat can increase your risk of becoming infected with Toxoplasma.
You can become infected after accidentally ingesting or inhaling infective Toxoplasma eggs from soil or other contaminated surfaces. This can happen by putting your hands to your mouth after gardening, cleaning a cat’s litter box or by touching anything that has come into contact with cat feces.
If you are pregnant when first infected with Toxoplasma, you can pass infection to you baby.
You can become infected with Toxoplasma through organ transplantation or transfusion, although these instances are rare.
What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis?
Non-specific flu-like symptoms such as fever, sore throat, swollen lymph glands, or muscle aches and pains and general malaise are the most common symptoms, but the majority of infections are overlooked with no symptoms apparent. Persons with compromised immune systems, those taking certain types of chemotherapy or persons who have recently received an organ transplant, and infants, may develop severe toxoplasmosis, which results in damage to the eye or the brain. Infants who are infected before birth may be born with serious mental and physical disability.
Who is at risk for severe toxoplasmosis?
Babies born to mothers who are FIRST exposed to toxoplasma infection immediately before or DURING pregnancy are at risk for severe disease. However, many exposed infants have no symptoms at all. Mothers who are first exposed to Toxoplasma more than 6 months before becoming pregnant are not likely to pass the infection to their children.
Persons with severely weakened immune systems can have reactivation of earlier infections, which can cause severe symptoms of toxoplasmosis.
How can I prevent toxoplasmosis?
Because Toxoplasma infections usually cause no symptoms or only mild symptoms, and your immune system keeps any remaining parasites in your body from causing further symptoms, most people don’t need to worry about getting toxoplasmosis. However, if you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system, there are several precautions you can take to prevent toxoplasmosis.
Cook all meat thoroughly, that is, until it is no longer pink in the center or until the juices run clear. Don’t sample meat before it is fully cooked. Uncooked or undercooked meat is the most common avenue of infection to humans.
Wear gloves when you garden or do anything outdoors that involves handling soil. Cats, who may pass the parasite in their feces, often use gardens and sandboxes as litter boxes. Wash your hands well with soap and warm water after outdoor activities, especially before you eat or prepare any food.
If you have a weakened immune system, get the blood test 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. If your test is negative, you can take precaution to avoid infections.
If you are planning on becoming pregnant, you may consider being tested for Toxoplasma. If the test is positive it shows you have been infected in the past and there is no 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 of toxoplasmosis. Your health care provider may order a blood sample for testing.
Have someone who is healthy and not pregnant handle raw meat for you; otherwise wear clean latex gloves when in contact with raw meat, utensils and cutting boards. Wash your hands well with soap and warm water afterwards.
Am I able to keep my cat?
Yes, there is no rationale for euthanizing pet cats. If you have a weakened immune system or are pregnant there are some steps to take to avoid exposing you and your cat to Toxoplasma.
- Feed cats commercially prepared foods; never feed them raw meat. Discourage ‘mousing’ by pet cats.
- Don’t bring a new cat or a feral cat inside. Avoid handling stray cats or kittens.
- Empty cat litter boxes daily; it takes 2-4 days for oocysts to become infective. Delegate this task to someone who is healthy and not pregnant. If this is not possible, wear latex gloves and wash thoroughly when finished.
Once infected with Toxoplasma, will my cat always be able to spread the infection?
No. The parasite is shed for only a few weeks after the initial infection takes place and is only infective for 2-4 days once shed. As with humans, cats rarely show symptoms when first infected, so most people don’t know if their cats have been exposed. There aren’t any good tests available to determine if your cat is passing Toxoplasma in its feces.
What is the treatment for toxoplasmosis?
Once a diagnosis of toxoplasmosis is confirmed, you and your health care provider can discuss whether treatment is necessary. In an otherwise healthy person who is not pregnant, treatment is usually not needed. Symptoms will usually go away within a few weeks. For pregnant women or persons who have weakened immune systems, drugs are available to treat toxoplasmosis.