You might know about the infection toxoplasmosis in relation to avoiding it during pregnancy by taking precautions with certain foods and the cat's litter box. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventing (CDC), some 60 million people in the United States could have toxoplasmosis. Many don't even know it because it can cause an infection with no symptoms or ones that are common to other illnesses.
This infection is caused by a microscopic parasite that can live inside the cells of humans and animals, especially cats and farm animals.
How It Spreads
People can catch toxoplasmosis from:
- touching or coming into contact with infected cat feces (cats get the infection from eating infected rodents, birds, or other small animals)
- eating raw or undercooked meat that's contaminated
- eating uncooked, unwashed fruits or vegetables that have been contaminated by manure
- being born with it (a woman who gets a toxoplasmosis infection while pregnant may pass the parasite on to her unborn child through the bloodstream)
Although infection doesn't normally spread from person to person except through pregnancy, in rare instances toxoplasmosis can contaminate blood transfusions and organs donated for transplantation.
Signs and Symptoms
Toxoplasmosis passes from animals to humans, sometimes without causing any symptoms. When kids do have symptoms, they vary depending on the child's age and the immune system's response to the infection. (As with humans, infected cats often don't show any signs of a toxoplasmosis infection.)
Toxoplasmosis infections in people fall into three basic patterns:
- congenital toxoplasmosis, in which a child becomes infected before birth
- toxoplasmosis in otherwise healthy kids (with the same symptoms a pregnant woman may have)
- toxoplasmosis in kids with weakened immune systems
When a pregnant woman (even one who has no symptoms) catches toxoplasmosis during pregnancy and remains untreated, there's a chance that she could pass the infection on to her developing fetus. Babies who become infected during their mother's first trimester tend to have the most severe symptoms.
However, it's rare that a woman who got toxoplasmosis before getting pregnant will pass the infection on to her unborn baby because she (and, therefore, her baby) will have built up immunity to the infection. It can occur, though, if a pregnant woman who's had a previous infection becomes immunocompromised and her infection is reactivated. Generally, it's probably a good idea to wait to try to get pregnant until at least 6 months after a toxoplasmosis infection.
Up to 90% of children born with congenital toxoplasmosis have no symptoms early in infancy, but a large percentage will show signs of infection months to years later. The few who show clear signs of infection at birth or shortly after may be born prematurely or are unusually small at birth.
Other signs and symptoms, if there are any, may include:
- swollen glands (lymph nodes)
- jaundice (yellowed skin and eyes caused by abnormal levels of the liver chemical bilirubin)
- an unusually large or small head
- bruises or bleeding under the skin
- enlarged liver or spleen
Some babies with congenital toxoplasmosis have brain and nervous system abnormalities that cause:
They're also at high risk for eye damage involving the retina (the light-sensitive lining at the back of the eye responsible for sight), resulting in severe vision problems.
If a child is born with congenital toxoplasmosis and remains untreated during infancy, there's almost always some sign of the infection (often eye damage) by early childhood to adolescence.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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