Toxoplasmosis is an infection. It’s caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite is so tiny you can’t see it.

More than 60 million people in the United States may have the parasite. Very few people have symptoms because a healthy immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing infection. But toxoplasmosis can cause big health problems for your baby during pregnancy.

How do you get infected with toxoplasmosis?

You can come in contact with the parasite that causes the infection through:

  • Eating raw or undercooked meat
  • Eating unwashed fruits and vegetables
  • Touching cat poop
  • Touching kitchen utensils and cutting boards used to prepare raw or undercooked meat and fruits and vegetables
  • Touching dirt or sand 

How do you know if you have toxoplasmosis?

You may not know if you have the infection. Lots of times there are no symptoms. For some people, it feels like the flu. Symptoms can include:

  • Achy muscles
  • Headache
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Fever
  • Discomfort
  • Swollen glands

These symptoms can last for a month or longer. If you think you have toxoplasmosis, talk to your health care provider. Your provider can give you a blood test to find out if you have the infection. Even though blood tests are a regular part of prenatal care, you don’t’ usually get testing for toxoplasmosis. So be sure to talk to your provider if you think you have the infection.

Can toxoplasmosis cause problems before pregnancy?

If you have toxoplasmosis within 6 months of getting pregnant, you may be able to pass it to your baby during pregnancy. Talk to your health care provider about being tested.

Can toxoplasmosis cause complications during pregnancy?

Yes. Pregnancy complications caused by toxoplasmosis include:

  • Preterm birth – Birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy
  • Stillbirth – This is when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy

If you get toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, you have a 3 in 10 chance (30 percent) of passing the infection to your baby. The later in your pregnancy you get infected, the more likely it is that your baby gets infected. But the earlier in pregnancy you get infected, the more serious the baby’s problems may be after birth. For example, he could have microcephaly or vision problems. Some infected babies may die.

If you have toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, your health care provider may suggest a test called amniocentesis (also called amnio) to see if your baby is infected. Amnio is a test that takes some amniotic fluid from around your baby in the uterus. You can get this test at 15 to 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The fluid can be tested to see if your baby has toxoplasmosis. It also can be tested for other problems with the baby, like birth defects or genetic problems. Birth defects are problems with a baby’s body that are present at birth. Genetic conditions may be passed from parents to children through genes and include certain diseases and birth defects. 

Can toxoplasmosis during pregnancy harm your baby?

Most babies born with toxoplasmosis have no symptoms. But about 1 in 10 babies (10 percent) with the infection are born with problems, including:

  • Eye infections
  • Enlarged liver and spleen
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • Pneumonia

Without treatment, 8 or 9 out of 10 newborns (85 percent) may develop problems later in life, even if they show no symptoms earlier. These problems include:

  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Vision problems
  • Cerebral palsy (a group of disorders that can cause problems with brain development that can affect a person’s balance, posture and ability to move)
  • Seizures
  • Hearing loss

Each year, between 400 and 4,000 babies in the United States are born with toxoplasmosis. If you think you had toxoplasmosis during pregnancy, be sure your baby is tested. Your baby can have a blood test to check for this infection.

How is toxoplasmosis treated during pregnancy?

Getting treatment with certain antibiotics helps reduce the chance of your baby getting toxoplasmosis. Antibiotics are medicines that kill some types of organisms that cause infections. This treatment also helps reduce the seriousness of any symptoms your baby may have.

If you’re infected before 18 weeks of pregnancy, your provider may give you an antibiotic called spiramycin. This medicine helps reduce the chance of your baby getting the infection.

If you’re infected after 18 weeks of pregnancy, your provider may give you different antibiotics called pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine. These medicines are recommended for use after 18 weeks of pregnancy. This is because if you take them before 18 weeks of pregnancy, they may cause birth defects in your baby.

How is toxoplasmosis treated in your baby after birth?

If your baby shows symptoms of toxoplasmosis, she gets treated with the antibiotics pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine. She continues these antibiotic treatments through her first birthday, sometimes even longer.

How can you prevent toxoplasmosis? 

Here’s how to protect yourself from toxoplasmosis:

  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat, especially lamb or pork. Cooked meat should not look pink, and the juices should be clear.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after handling fruits, vegetables or raw meat.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth when handling raw meat.
  • Clean cutting boards, work surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water after using them with fruits, vegetables or raw meat.
  • Peel or thoroughly wash all raw fruits and vegetables before eating.
  • Use work gloves when you’re gardening. Wash your hands afterwards.
  • Don’t let your cat go outside your home where it may come in contact with the parasite.
  • Ask someone else to clean your cat’s litter box. If you have to do it yourself, wear gloves. Wash your hands thoroughly when you’re done emptying the litter.
  • Stay away from children’s sandboxes. Cats like to use them as litter boxes.

See also: Eating healthy during pregnancy

Last updated: February, 2013