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Information from Your Family Doctor
Am Fam Physician. 2003 May 15;67(10):2145-2146.
What is toxoplasmosis, and how do you get it?
Toxoplasmosis (say: tox-oh-plaz-moh-sis) is an infection caused by a tiny parasite. You would need a microscope to see it.
You can get toxoplasmosis in the following ways:
By swallowing the parasite in cat litter or dirt that has cat droppings in it. This can happen if you put your hands to your mouth after gardening, cleaning a cat litter box, or touching anything that has been in contact with cat droppings. Cats sometimes carry the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis.
By eating raw or partly cooked meat, especially pork, lamb, or wild game.
By touching something, such as a cutting board or dish, that has been in contact with raw or undercooked meat and then putting your hands to your mouth.
By eating unwashed raw fruits and vegetables, or drinking water with the parasite in it.
If you are pregnant when you first get toxoplasmosis, you can pass the infection to your unborn child. If you have toxoplasmosis before you get pregnant, you are unlikely to pass it to your baby.
People who have an organ transplant or a blood transfusion also can get toxoplasmosis. However, this rarely happens.
If you have a healthy immune system and are not pregnant, you probably do not need to worry about toxoplasmosis.
What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis?
Most people have no symptoms because their immune system keeps the parasite from causing illness. If you have symptoms, they may be like the “flu.” Your glands may be swollen, and your muscles may be sore for a few days to several weeks.
If you have a weak immune system, toxoplasmosis can cause serious medical problems, such as damage to your eyes and brain. Your immune system can become weak for a number of reasons. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection leading to AIDS can weaken the immune system. So can some kinds of cancer chemotherapy or medicines that are taken after an organ transplant.
Babies with toxoplasmosis can have brain damage, eye damage, and other physical and mental problems. Some problems may not show up for years.
How do I know I have toxoplasmosis?
Routine screening for toxoplasmosis is not recommended. However, if you are at risk for toxoplasmosis, your doctor might want you to have a blood test.
How is toxoplasmosis treated?
If the blood test shows that you have toxoplasmosis, you and your doctor can decide if you need to be treated. If you are otherwise healthy and not pregnant, you probably do not need any treatment.
If you are pregnant or have a weak immune system, you might need to take some medicines to treat toxoplasmosis.
A baby with toxoplasmosis has to be treated with medicine.
How can I keep from getting toxoplasmosis?
Here are some things you can do to protect yourself from getting toxoplasmosis:
Wear gloves when you work in the dirt. Cats often use gardens and sandboxes as litter boxes.
After outdoor activities, wash your hands with soap and warm water, especially before you eat or prepare food.
Use hot soapy water to clean cutting boards, dishes, and other items after they have been in contact with raw meat, poultry, or seafood, or unwashed fruits and vegetables.
Cook meat until it is no longer pink in the center or until the juices run clear (160 degrees Fahrenheit on a meat thermometer). Do not taste meat before it is fully cooked.
When eating in restaurants or other places, do not eat undercooked meat.
Avoid drinking untreated water especially when traveling in less developed countries.
I have a cat. Can I keep it?
Yes. If you are pregnant or your immune system is weak, here are some things you can do to keep from getting toxoplasmosis:
Keep your cat indoors so that it does not pick up the toxoplasmosis parasite from the animals it hunts.
Feed your cat only dry or canned cat food. Like humans, cats can become infected with toxoplasmosis by eating raw or undercooked meat.
Do not bring a new cat into your house if the animal might have been an outdoor cat or might have been fed raw meat. Do not handle stray cats or kittens.
Have a person who is healthy and not pregnant change your cat's litter box. If you have to change the cat litter yourself, wear gloves while you do it. When you finish, wash your hands well with soap and warm water. Clean the litter box daily.
Cats only spread toxoplasmosis in their droppings for a few weeks in their lives, usually after they are first infected. There is no benefit to having your cat's droppings tested for the toxoplasmosis parasite.
Where can I get more information about toxoplasmosis?
You can get more information at this Web site: www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dpd/parasites/toxoplasmosis/default.htm
This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.
Copyright © 2003 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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