- Toxoplasmosis is an infectious disease caused by a parasite that passes from animals to people.
- Pregnant women who become infected can pass the parasite to their unborn baby, who may develop serious health problems.
- Toxoplasmosis does not normally make healthy people unwell.
- You can avoid infection by cooking meat thoroughly, washing fruits and vegetables and by drinking clean water.
- Washing your hands after touching soil, gardening or changing cat litter can also prevent infection.
What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection that can affect both people and animals. It is common in all parts of the world and can affect people of all ages. You can get infected by eating contaminated meat or by coming into contact with animals with the disease or their faeces (poo).
What causes toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite is a microorganism that is carried by animals such as cats, birds, rats, mice, sheep, pigs and kangaroos. It is especially commonly found in cats that hunt small animals. Toxoplasma gondii can reproduce in the cat’s intestines so cat faeces (poo) often contain the parasite, which when left on soil or sand, can cause that to become contaminated too.
You can become infected by the parasite if it enters your mouth. This could be by eating infected meat which has not been properly cooked, or by touching infected animal faeces (poo) or soil and then touching your mouth. Eating vegetables that have been grown in soil that contains the parasite can also cause you to become infected if the vegetables are not washed before you eat them.
What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis?
Healthy people, including babies, will generally not experience any symptoms of toxoplasmosis. Some people experience a fever, headaches, muscle aches and swollen glands for a few days. After you recover from the infection, a small amount of the parasite stays in your body. If your immune system becomes weakened, because of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or cancer treatment for example, the parasite can become active again and cause serious illness. Symptoms of a serious infection include pneumonia, inflammation of the heart muscle and brain, and can even lead to death.
People with a healthy immune system are not normally infected more than once during their lives.
Why is toxoplasmosis more dangerous during pregnancy?
Toxoplasmosis is more dangerous during pregnancy because the infection can pass from you to your unborn baby. If you become infected when you are pregnant, the parasites in your blood can cross the placenta to your baby.
Toxoplasmosis infection in the early stages of pregnancy can cause your baby to develop brain damage, and liver, eye and spleen disorders. Infection in the later stages of pregnancy can cause ongoing infection in your baby’s eyes. The further along in your pregnancy you are, the more likely that the parasite will infect your baby, although the less severe the infection is likely to be.
How is toxoplasmosis treated?
Most people will not need any treatment for toxoplasmosis. Antibiotics can be used to treat severe infections and are also given to pregnant women with toxoplasmosis to reduce the risk that their unborn baby will become infected. Babies born to mothers with toxoplasmosis are treated with antibiotics while they are tested to see if they are also infected. If a baby is infected, they will continue to be treated for 12 months.
How can I avoid getting toxoplasmosis?
Pregnant women should take extra care to avoid getting toxoplasmosis because of the risk to their unborn baby. You can avoid getting toxoplasmosis from contaminated food and water by doing the following:
- Make sure the meat you eat is properly cooked or frozen at -20°C for at least 24 hours before eating. All meat eaten by pregnant women should be “well done”.
- Wash your hands, kitchen utensils, countertop and sink if they touch raw meat.
- Don't drink untreated water.
- Only drink milk and milk products which have been pasteurised.
- Wash or peel raw fruits and vegetables.
- Wash your hands before eating.
Learn more about food to avoid when pregnant.
You can minimise your risk of getting toxoplasmosis from contaminated soil or sand by:
- covering sandpits used by children when they are not in use
- washing your hands after gardening or spending time outdoors
If you own a cat, you can minimise your risk of infection by:
- feeding your cat dry, canned or cooked food
- making sure that the litter tray is emptied daily and disinfected with boiling water regularly
- discouraging your cat from hunting or eating animals it finds outdoors, since they may be infected
- avoiding changing cat litter, or by wearing gloves when changing cat litter and washing your hands afterwards
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Last reviewed: May 2022