If you are pregnant or are actively trying to conceive a child, it is important to follow healthy lifestyle habits. Eating a proper pregnancy diet, exercising regularly, and maintaining regular prenatal appointments can go a long way to ensuring that you and your baby remain healthy and happy. But you also need to be aware of certain illnesses and environmental risks that can be harmful to you and baby. Toxoplasmosis is an infection that can be quite serious if you contract it during your pregnancy. Toxoplasmosis can be passed along to your baby, causing serious health problems and birth defects.
What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection that is caused by a single-celled parasite known as toxoplasma gondii. This parasite is often found in wild birds and rodents, and then passed along to other animals; it can be transmitted to humans through direct contact with these infected animals.
Currently, more than 60 million Americans are infected with the toxoplasmosis parasite. In the majority of these people, the infection causes no serious side effects or health risks. However, toxoplasmosis can be extremely dangerous if contracted by people with compromised immune systems (such as chemotherapy patients or people with HIV/AIDS) or by pregnant women. Pregnant women can pass the infection on to their developing baby, resulting in serious health consequences.
How is Toxoplasmosis Contracted?
Toxoplasmosis can be contracted by coming into contact with an animal that has been infected by the parasite or through direct contact with infected animal products. The main methods of transmission are:
- through contact with infected cat feces (while gardening or cleaning litter boxes)
- through contact with infected sheep or sheep feces
- by eating raw or undercooked infected meats (particularly lamb, venison, and pork)
- through contact with infected utensils, cutting boards, or food preparation surfaces
- through a contaminated blood transfusion or organ transplant
Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis
Unfortunately, it is often difficult to know if you have toxoplasmosis. The infection often causes no symptoms, especially in healthy adults. Symptoms that do appear tend to be mild and flu-like and often donï¿½t appear until months after infection. Symptoms may include:
- swollen glands
- muscle aches and pains
- low fever
Symptoms usually only last for a few weeks, however, once you have been infected with the toxoplasmosa gondii parasite, the infection will remain in your system. The infection can reactivate months or even years later, causing symptoms to reappear.
Toxoplasmosis During Pregnancy
Fortunately, toxoplasmosis is extremely rare during pregnancy, occurring in only 2 out of every 1,000 births. However, if you contract the infection during pregnancy it must be taken extremely seriously. This is because there is a possibility that you will pass the parasite on to your child. Children who are infected can develop serious health problems. 10% of infected children show symptoms of the disease at birth. Toxoplasmosis symptoms in infants can include:
- eye infections
- skin rash and bruising
- mental retardation
- nervous system damage
Toxoplasmosis can also result in miscarriage or stillbirth.
90% of children who are infected with the disease while in the womb will not develop symptoms until they are older. These symptoms can often include eye infections and blindness, deafness, and learning disabilities.
Diagnosing and Treating Toxoplasmosis
If you are pregnant or if you think you may have toxoplasmosis, your health care provider can perform a series of simple blood tests to determine if you are infected. Most healthy people who are infected with toxoplasmosis will not require any treatment. However, if you are pregnant, your health care provider will offer you treatment in order to prevent your baby from becoming seriously ill.
Your health care provider will first perform ultrasound tests to determine if your baby has become infected. If infection has taken place, you will be offered pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine. These medications can help to prevent your babyï¿½s side effects from becoming too serious. If your baby has not been infected, you will be offered the antibiotic spriamycin, which can reduce the likelihood of infection by up to 50%.
Preventing Toxoplasmosis During Pregnancy
During your pregnancy, it is important to take steps to prevent contracting toxoplasmosis. Here are some helpful tips that will help to keep you and your baby free from the illness:
- Keep your cat indoors. Indoor cats who eat tinned or dry cat food will not become infected with toxoplasmosis.
- Avoid stray or outdoor cats.
- Wear gloves when you garden, to prevent touching any cat feces.
- Have someone else clean your catï¿½s litter box. If you have to do it, be sure to wear gloves. Clean cat litter boxes daily (it takes more than 24 hours for the toxoplasma gondii parasite to become infectious).
- Cook all meats thoroughly. Check to make sure that the internal temperature of your meat is 160°F, and that the meat is no longer pink in the middle.
- Wash all utensils that have come into contact with raw meat thoroughly, with hot water and soap.
- Avoid any type of contact with sheep.