Though you may never have heard of it before, toxoplasmosis is one of the most common infections in the world today. A person gets infected with this parasite by eating undercooked meat or through contact with cat feces. It's particularly prevalent in populations without high standards of hygiene, or in places where people often eat raw or undercooked meat, such as France.
Because toxoplasmosis is symptomless or mimics a mild flu, most cases go undiagnosed. If you've had this parasite before, you don't have to worry about it, because you will have developed immunity. You can't pass it on to your unborn baby, and it's unlikely that it will give you any trouble. The parasite will simply drift around dormant as long as your immune system is functioning normally. If you're planning to conceive and don't know whether you've had toxoplasmosis, ask your health-care provider if you should have a blood test that can show whether or not you're immune. This test is not a routine pregnancy screening (unless you have symptoms of toxoplasmosis). If you test positive, additional tests will be required to determine if yours is a recent or past infection.
Though toxoplasmosis is not as common in the U.S. as it is in other nations, you can still get it and pass it on to your baby. In fact, between about 400 to 4,000 babies in this country are born infected with the illness, which can pose a serious health threat to newborns. About one in 10 infected babies has a severe infection, resulting in conditions such as enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), and pneumonia. If left untreated, some babies die within a few days of birth. Those who survive may suffer from mental retardation, seizures, and other health problems for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps the most frightening fact about toxoplasmosis is that up to 90 percent of infected babies appear completely normal at birth. Up to 85 percent of these children develop health problems months to years later, including eye infections, hearing loss, and learning disabilities. Fortunately, if you had the illness but your baby is symptomless, he'll be tested and diagnosed at birth so he can receive the proper treatment. Infected babies are treated with two medications, pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine, throughout the first year of life, or even longer, to help prevent lasting disabilities.
If you experience any symptoms of toxoplasmosis, such as swollen glands and general malaise, talk to your doctor immediately. He may recommend one or more of several available blood tests. These tests require expert interpretation, and therefore the CDC recommends that all positive test results be confirmed by a laboratory with special expertise in diagnosing the infection.
If the laboratory confirms you have toxoplasmosis, the next step is to determine whether or not your unborn baby is infected. Tests such as amniocentesis will help confirm the diagnosis. If your doctor thinks that your baby is infected, he'll treat you with pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine. These drugs will help reduce the frequency and severity of the baby's symptoms after birth. If tests show that the fetus is not yet infected, you may be given a special antibiotic called spiramycin, which can reduce the likelihood of your baby's infection.
Here are a few ways that you can avoid the illness altogether:
- Never eat raw or undercooked meat. When you prepare meat at home, cook it to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees for steaks and chops, 160 degrees for ground meat, and 165 degrees for poultry -- and make sure the meat looks pale pink or brown, not red. At restaurants, order your meat well done, and if you wind up with a reddish piece, send it back and ask that it be cooked until it's brown in the middle.
- After handling raw meat, wash your hands with soap and water immediately and don't touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, which is how the parasite gains entry to your body.
- Clean all of your cutting boards, work surfaces, and utensils thoroughly with hot, soapy water after contact with raw meat or unwashed produce.
- Peel or thoroughly wash all raw produce before you eat it.
- Don't empty or clean the cat's litter box during pregnancy.
- Don't feed your cat raw or undercooked meat. Doing so can start the cycle of infection.
- Keep your cat indoors to prevent him from hunting birds or rodents. Contact with these animals could infect him with the parasite.
Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.
All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.