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What is toxoplasmosis?

Pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems should watch out for toxoplasmosis, which can be brought into your house by a cat.

Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a microscopic parasite called Toxoplasma gondii.

Healthy people who are infected often have no symptoms at all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In those who do have symptoms, problems are generally minor and go away.

But a pregnant woman who contracts toxoplasmosis can pass it to her unborn baby. The baby may die or be born with birth defects.

And the infection can cause life-threatening complications in people with HIV/AIDS, according to CDC.

Cause

The parasite that causes toxoplasmosis can grow and complete its life cycle only in cats, says CDC. Cats contract the parasite from eating infected birds or mice.

For about two weeks after infection, a cat excretes millions of the infection-causing parasites in its stool. The parasites are dangerous to humans for one to five days after being passed in the stool.

Usually, though, people don't get the infection from direct contact with cats, says the American Veterinary Medical Association. They get it from food or water or by touching soil that has been in contact with infected cat stool.

Toxoplasmosis can also be contracted by other animals, such as birds or cattle, which come in contact with infected cat feces in the soil. Eating food from these animals, if it's undercooked, can also put a person at risk for infection.

In rare cases, infection may result from blood transfusions or solid organ transplants.

People with HIV/AIDS who develop toxoplasmosis generally have already had the infection for a long time. Like most people, they were exposed, but no symptoms arose. The parasite is inactive within the body.

But when the person's immune system weakens, the parasite can become active again, says CDC.

Symptoms

There are a broad range of symptoms associated with toxoplasmosis. In healthy people, they are generally mild and may include fever, muscle pain, headache and swollen lymph nodes. People with compromised immune systems may experience more severe systems including confusion, poor coordination and seizures.

Treatments

Most healthy people recover from toxoplasmosis without treatment. People who are ill can be treated with a combination of drugs, such as pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine. Some people may need to continue low-dose therapy to prevent the infection from returning. Pregnant women may receive a medication called spiramycin to prevent the infection from spreading to the fetus.

Prevention

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends these measures to protect yourself from this infection:

  • Wash your hands with warm, soapy water after you touch soil, sand, raw meat, cat litter or unwashed vegetables.
  • Wash cutting boards and knives with hot, soapy water after every use.
  • Wash and/or peel fruits and vegetables before you eat them.
  • Keep raw meat separate from other foods in your shopping cart and refrigerator and while you're preparing food at home.
  • Cook all meat thoroughly.
  • Don't drink untreated water, especially while traveling in less-developed countries.
  • If you have HIV/AIDS or you're pregnant, avoid changing cat litter boxes. If you must clean a litter box, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands afterward.
  • Wear gloves when gardening or handling sand from a sandbox. Wash your hands afterward.
  • Never feed your cat raw meat.
  • Keep indoor cats inside.
  • Avoid stray cats.
  • Don't get a new cat while you're pregnant.

Reviewed 10/11/2021

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