Toxoplasmosis and Pregnancy: Symptoms and Treatment
You may not have heard of it, but toxoplasmosis is an infection that comes from one of the world’s most common parasites. The infection is usually undetectable in healthy adults and is not directly related to pregnancy, but it's important to know that exposure during pregnancy can be harmful to the baby. Toxoplasmosis is commonly spread by outdoor cats who have come into contact with small wild birds or other animals who may be infected. Read on to learn more about the symptoms and treatments of this disease, and how to avoid exposure to the parasite called Toxoplasma gondii.
What Is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T gondii for short). It is usually carried by cats who have come into contact with the infection by contact with rodents, birds, or other small, wild animals, and can be transmitted through cat feces, among other things. Millions of Americans (men and women) may be infected by this parasite, but a healthy immune system helps prevent the symptoms of toxoplasmosis from appearing — meaning it’s possible to carry the parasite with no noticeable symptoms for many years, or even a lifetime. In most cases, there are no long-term complications, and the infection will go away on its own. However, if a mom-to-be gets infected, it can cause significant health problems for her baby after he’s born. For this reason, if you think you may be infected with toxoplasmosis, reach out to your healthcare provider for advice.
Causes and Transmission
Toxoplasmosis is caused by contact with the T gondii parasite. This parasite can be passed along through contact with cat feces, through eating or contact with raw or undercooked meat or with unwashed fruits and vegetables, and through contact with soil or sand. Cats are the main carrier as this parasite thrives in cats. Outdoor cats (who come into contact with soil and sand, and may hunt wild prey like mice or rats) are especially likely to carry the parasite. If you come into contact with the parasite while pregnant, it can form a cyst in a muscle or internal organ and can cause flu-like symptoms in you and health problems for your baby later on.
If you get toxoplasmosis in the six months before getting pregnant, there is still a chance you could transmit the infection to your baby. If you contract the infection during your pregnancy, there’s about a 30 percent chance of transmitting it to your baby.
During pregnancy, you may not notice any symptoms or signs of toxoplasmosis. However, some moms-to-be experience flu-like symptoms such as body aches, fever, fatigue, or headaches. If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to let your healthcare provider know.
Most babies who contract toxoplasmosis before birth do not show any symptoms at the time of birth. Vision and hearing problems, as well as developmental disabilities, are a few of the signs of toxoplasmosis in infected babies, but these signs may not manifest until several years after birth, or even into the teen years.
A blood test can indicate a toxoplasmosis infection, and your healthcare provider can diagnose the infection based on your test results. If you are infected, it may be important to determine when you contracted toxoplasmosis, in which case your healthcare provider may perform two different types of blood tests. One test will determine the strength of the parasite, and the other will assess the protein in your body that is responsible for neutralizing the infection.
If you’re trying to become pregnant, and think that you might have been exposed to the parasite, you may want to ask your healthcare provider for a screening test before you conceive, because the parasite is less likely to pass to your unborn baby if you contract it more than six months before conception. Download our Questions to Ask Your Healthcare Provider guide for other information to help you get the most out of your prenatal appointments.
If you are diagnosed with toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to help lessen the severity of any symptoms you might be feeling and that your baby might experience after birth. These antibiotics help kill the parasite that causes infection. The treatment you get may also depend on when you contracted toxoplasmosis. If you were exposed to the parasite after about week 16 to week 18 of pregnancy, you may require a combination of antibiotic treatments.
If you do contract toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, amniocentesis testing may be recommended to see if your baby has been infected. An ultrasound exam can also help detect certain signs of toxoplasmosis. Your baby’s blood may also be tested after birth.
If your baby shows signs of infection, she may be prescribed an antibiotic treatment during the first year of her life. For babies who get toxoplasmosis before birth, early treatment can help prevent problems later in life. Your healthcare provider will walk you through the best treatment options available.
There are steps you can take to avoid getting toxoplasmosis. Here are a few ways to avoid exposure to the T gondii parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, especially if you’re a cat owner:
Avoid changing your cat’s litter box (use gloves if necessary)
Don’t let your cat outside
Don’t feed your cat raw or undercooked meats
Wear gloves when working in the garden
Avoid outdoor sandboxes
Avoid undercooked meats; eat only meat cooked to an internal temperature of 150° to 170° Fahrenheit (read more about what not to eat during pregnancy)
Wash and peel fruits and vegetables
Wash your hands after handling meat, fruits, and vegetables
Keep your kitchen clean.
FAQs at a Glance
When should I see a doctor?
If you’re thinking of becoming pregnant and you suspect you might have been exposed to the T gondii parasite, it might be a good idea to visit your healthcare provider and ask about a toxoplasmosis test. It’s one of the steps you can take when preparing for pregnancy.
What are some possible complications of toxoplasmosis for my baby?
There is a risk of preterm birth or stillbirth, but vision, hearing, and developmental problems are the most common complications infected babies may face.
Is there a cure for toxoplasmosis?
The parasite is usually not completely eliminated, but if you contract toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to help reduce your baby’s risk of future health problems.
Can I breastfeed if I’ve contracted toxoplasmosis?
Yes. It’s very unlikely that you will transmit the infection to your baby by breastfeeding.
Toxoplasmosis is a potentially serious condition, but a simple blood test can help put your mind at ease if you suspect you may have come into contact with the T gondii parasite. Early detection is important, so be sure to contact your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.
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