Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection that may cause flu-like symptoms. The organism that causes toxoplasmosis — Toxoplasma gondii — is one of the world’s most common parasites. Anyone can become infected with toxoplasmosis. The parasite is found throughout the world. Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is a single-celled parasitic organism that can infect most animals and birds. But because it reproduces sexually only in cats, wild and domestic felines are the parasite’s ultimate host.
Most people affected never develop signs and symptoms. But for infants born to infected mothers and for people with compromised immune systems, toxoplasmosis can cause extremely serious complications.
If you’re generally healthy, you probably won’t need any treatment for toxoplasmosis. If you’re pregnant or have lowered immunity, certain medications can help reduce the infection’s severity. The best approach, though, is prevention.
Most often, you won’t know that you’ve contracted toxoplasmosis, although some people may develop toxoplasmosis symptoms similar to those of the flu or mononucleosis, such as:
- Body aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Occasionally, a sore throat
If you are living with HIV/AIDS, are receiving chemotherapy or have recently had an organ transplant, you’re more likely to develop signs and symptoms of severe toxoplasmosis infection, including:
- Poor coordination
- Lung problems that may resemble tuberculosis or Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, a common opportunistic infection that occurs in people with AIDS
- Blurred vision caused by severe inflammation of your retina (ocular toxoplasmosis)
you can become infected with Toxoplasmosis if you come in contact with:
- Cat feces that contain the parasite. You may accidentally ingest the parasites if you touch your mouth after gardening, cleaning a litter box or touching anything that’s come in contact with infected cat feces. Cats who hunt or who are fed raw meat are most likely to harbor T. gondii.
- Ingesting contaminated food or water. Lamb, pork and venison are especially likely to be infected with T. gondii. Occasionally, unpasteurized dairy products also may contain the cysts. Additionally, while not common in the United States, water can be contaminated with T. gondii, but this is not common in the United States.
- Contaminated knives, cutting boards or other utensils. Kitchen utensils that come in contact with raw meat can harbor the parasites unless the utensils are washed thoroughly in plenty of hot, soapy water.
- Contaminated, unwashed fruits and vegetables. The surface of fruits and vegetables may contain traces of the parasite. To be safe, thoroughly wash all produce, especially any you eat raw.
- An infected organ transplant or transfused blood. In rare cases, toxoplasmosis can be transmitted through an organ transplant or blood transfusion.
If you have a strong immune system, you’re not likely to experience any complications of toxoplasmosis, although otherwise healthy people sometimes develop eye infections.
But if your immune system is compromised, especially as a result of HIV/AIDS, toxoplasmosis can lead to seizures and life-threatening illnesses such as encephalitis — a serious brain infection. In people living with AIDS, untreated encephalitis resulting from toxoplasmosis is fatal. Relapse is a constant concern for immunocompromised people with toxoplasmosis.
Children with congenital toxoplasmosis may develop disabling complications, including hearing loss, blindness and mental retardation.
Without specific screening, toxoplasmosis is often difficult to diagnose because signs and symptoms, when they occur, are similar to those of more common illnesses such as the flu and mononucleosis.
Most healthy people don’t require toxoplasmosis treatment. But if you’re otherwise healthy and have signs and symptoms of acute toxoplasmosis, your doctor may prescribe the following drugs:
- Pyrimethamine (Daraprim). This antimalarial medication is also used to treat toxoplasmosis. It’s a folic acid antagonist, which means it may prevent your body from absorbing the important B vitamin folate (folic acid, vitamin B-9), especially when you take high doses over a long period of time. For that reason, your doctor may recommend taking additional folic acid.
- Sulfadiazine. This antibiotic is used in combination with pyrimethamine to treat toxoplasmosis.
If you’re pregnant and currently infected with toxoplasmosis but your baby isn’t affected, you may be given the antibiotic spiramycin. Use of this drug can reduce the likelihood that your baby will become infected, without posing a risk to you or your child. Although routinely used to treat toxoplasmosis in Europe, spiramycin is still considered an experimental drug in the United States.
When tests indicate that your unborn child has toxoplasmosis, your doctor may suggest treatment with pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine. Because these drugs can have serious side effects for both women and babies, they’re normally not used during pregnancy, but doctors sometimes prescribe them in extreme circumstances. Drug treatment can lessen the severity of congenital toxoplasmosis, but it won’t undo any damage that’s already been done.