What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a common condition found in animals and birds as well as humans. It's caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which can be found in several sources, including raw or undercooked meat; raw, cured meat, unpasteurised dairy products and cat faeces.
In most cases, toxoplasmosis is symptomless as the body fights the parasite that causes it without succumbing to illness.
Although toxoplasmosis is mostly harmless, it's potentially serious if a woman trying to conceive or a mum-to-be in her first or second trimester becomes infected. This is because it can have devastating effects on unborn babies, including brain damage, visual impairment or even, in rare cases, death. Infection in pregnancy is rare, though, and many women will already be immune, as an earlier infection gives you lifelong immunity.
Because of the risk to your baby, if you're trying to conceive or already pregnant you should:
- Avoid eating potentially infected foods
- Wear gloves when gardening, handling soil or emptying a cat's litter tray
- Wash your hands and all relevant utensils when handling and preparing raw meat
- Avoid cook-chill ready meals
- Wash or peel all fruit and veg
- Avoid handling sheep or newborn lambs, which can be infected with the parasite
Congenital toxoplasmosis in newborns and is very rare, with about three babies in every 100,000 being born with the condition. Symptoms usually only emerge in the first few months or years after birth.
Visual impairment and brain damage can also affect infected people with weakened immune systems - for instance, those with HIV and AIDS, or cancer.
What are the symptoms of Toxoplasmosis?
Usually there are no symptoms of toxoplasmosis, but some people develop mild flu-like symptoms, including a fever (temperature of 38 degrees C or above) and general aches and pains. Because the symptoms can have many different causes, it's hard to diagnose infection with toxoplasmosis from these signs on their own.
If you're pregnant, you'll be routinely screened for toxoplasmosis. If it's negative, it means you have no antibodies and so you're not immune to the infection. You may be offered monthly blood tests to check whether or not you've been infected. If it's positive, it means you do have antibodies – but this could mean either that you've had a previous infection so are safe, or that your body is currently fighting a new infection.
A different blood test will show whether or not the infection is new.
To find out if your baby has congenital toxoplasmosis, you'll need to have amniocentesis (where a sample of amniotic fluid is extracted for analysis via a needle into your abdomen). The procedure carries a 1% chance of miscarriage and can't tell you the extent of any damage to your baby, so you'll need to talk over the pros and cons with your medical team before deciding to go ahead. There's always a risk, albeit very small, of miscarrying a healthy baby.
What are the treatments and remedies of Toxoplasmosis?
Most cases of toxoplasmosis will clear up within a few weeks without treatment. However, if you're pregnant and found to be infected, you'll need antibiotic treat with spiramycin or pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine for several months in order to give your baby the best chance of protection from congenital toxoplasmosis or to limit the damage.
Your baby will be tested for toxoplasmosis infection at birth and, if the tests are positive, he'll be given medication straightaway and checked for any damage. He'll be tested at intervals until there are no more toxoplasmosis antibodies in his blood, when he'll be clear of the condition.
Other people who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of toxoplasmosis because of lowered immunity, and who have more pronounced symptoms are usually prescribed two drugs called pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine. In some cases, folinic acid is also given. In some cases, treatment needs to be lifelong.
The information in this Bounty A-Z of Family Health is not a substitute for an examination, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, midwife, health visitor or any other qualified health professional. If in doubt, always speak to a doctor.
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For health advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the NHS offers call and web services. You can also visit NHS websites for services, health information and health news at nhs.uk
- England – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs.uk
- Scotland – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs24.com
- Wales – call 0845 4647 , or visit nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk
- Northern Ireland – visit hscni.net
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