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8-minute read

Key facts

  • Toxoplasmosis is an infectious disease caused by a parasite that passes from animals to people.
  • If you're pregnant and become infected with toxoplasmosis, you can pass the parasite to your 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 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 infection is caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii.

Toxoplasma gondii can be found in:

  • many animals including cats, birds, rats, mice, sheep, pigs and kangaroos.
  • cat litter
  • soil or sand that has been contaminated with animal poo, especially kitten poo

You can become infected with toxoplasmosis if you swallow the parasite. This can happen if you:

  • eat infected meat that has not been properly cooked
  • eat unwashed salad vegetables that have grown in soil that is infected with Toxoplasma gondii
  • touch your mouth after being in contact with infected animal poo or soil — for example, if you are gardening or cleaning a cat litter box
  • drink unfiltered water in developing countries or unpasteurised milk

Children can become infected if they eat sand from contaminated dirt or a sandpit.

Toxoplasmosis does not usually spread from person to person. However, if you are pregnant, you can pass it on to your unborn baby.

What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis?

Most healthy people, including babies, do not have any symptoms if they are infected with toxoplasmosis.

Some people do develop flu-like symptoms for a few days, such as:

After you recover from toxoplasmosis infection, a small amount of the parasite stays in your body. If you have a healthy immune system after your first infection, you will not be infected again.

If you have a weakened immune system, for example if you are getting cancer treatments or living with AIDS, the illness can reactivate again in your body. You will be at risk of developing severe symptoms that may at times be life threatening.

Severe toxoplasmosis symptoms include:

  • pneumonia
  • inflammation of your heart muscle or brain

Why is toxoplasmosis more dangerous during pregnancy?

Toxoplasmosis is more dangerous during pregnancy because the parasite can cross your placenta and infect your unborn baby. If your baby is infected, they are at risk of birth defects. Usually a foetus only becomes infected if this is your first infection.

If you become infected with toxoplasmosis in your first trimester, the risk of your baby getting infected is low. However, they could develop a severe infection.

If you get infected later in your pregnancy, there's a higher risk your baby will become infected. However, their infection might be less severe.

Diagnosis and treatment of toxoplasmosis during pregnancy may reduce the effects the infection can have on your baby.

Toxoplasmosis complications for your unborn baby

Toxoplasmosis can cause the following complications to your unborn baby:

  • brain and nervous system damage — developmental delays, seizures, hydrocephalus (build up of fluid in the brain), or microcephaly (an unusually small head)
  • liver damage
  • spleen damage
  • eye infections that can appear at birth or afterwards
  • deafness
  • general symptoms — poor feeding, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhoea

How is toxoplasmosis diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose toxoplasmosis by doing a blood test. Your blood test results can tell you if this is the first time you have been infected or if it is a returning infection.

How is toxoplasmosis treated?

If you are healthy and your symptoms are mild, you will not need any treatment.

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if you:

  • have a severe toxoplasmosis infection
  • are pregnant and you want to reduce the risk of infecting your baby

Babies born with toxoplasmosis will need:

  • antibiotics for their first year of life to help reduce long term effects
  • ongoing monitoring of their development and eye health

How can I avoid getting toxoplasmosis?

If you are pregnant or immunocompromised, try to take precautions to try and prevent getting toxoplasmosis.

Food and hygiene tips:

  • Food hygiene: Avoid handling raw meat. Wash your hands, utensils, countertop and sinks if they touch raw meat. Wash your hands before eating.
  • Meat: Make sure that any meat you eat is properly cooked. If it was frozen, it should have been at -20°C for at least 24 hours before eating.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Wash or peel raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Milk and water: Do not drink untreated water. Do not have unpasteurised milk or its products.

Learn more about food to avoid when pregnant.

Tips if you own a cat:

  • Feed your cats dry, canned or cooked foods.
  • Make sure their litter tray is emptied daily and disinfected with boiling water regularly.
  • Discourage your cat from hunting or eating animals it finds outdoors — a bell on their collar can help.
  • Avoid personally changing cat litter if you are pregnant or have low immunity. If you have no choice, wear gloves and wash your hands well with soap afterwards.

Gardening and sandpit tips:

  • Wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly with soap after touching soil.
  • Cover sandpits used by children when they are not being used.

Resources and support

  • Read more about food safety during pregnancy on The Royal Women's factsheet.
  • If you are pregnant and worried about toxoplasmosis, call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available from 7 am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week (including public holidays).
  • If you are considering getting a pet and are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, read more on pets in the family.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2023

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