What Is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a infectious disease caused by the parasiteToxoplasma gondii.
Although cats and their feline relatives are the only hosts in whichT.gondiireproduces, the parasite is found in humans and numerous other animals, including rodents, birds, pigs, and sheep.
An estimated 60 million people in the United States may be infected withT. gondii, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What's more, up to 95 percent of some populations across the globe are infected by the parasite.
Toxoplasma gondiiLife Cycle
Cats play a vital role inT. gondii's life cycle and the spread of toxoplasmosis to people.
A cat becomes infected withT.gondiiafter eating birds or small mammals infected with the parasite.
The parasites then reproduce in the cat's small intestine and form oocysts, which are thick-walled cysts containing zygotes.
The cat eventually "sheds" the oocysts in its feces. Most cats shed oocysts only once in their lifetime, but they do so continually for 1 to 2 weeks.
Research suggests that about 1 percent of cats in the world are shedding oocysts at any given time, according to a 2013 report in the journalTrends in Parasitology.
A single cat can shed anywhere from 3 million to 810 million oocysts, which can remain viable in the environment for many months — sometimes over a year — if the conditions are right.
Within 5 days, the oocysts undergo a process called sporulation, in which they become infectious. Other animals become infected when they ingest soil, water, or plants contaminated with oocysts.
Shortly after being ingested, the parasites develop into tissue cysts and remain in their intermediate host for the rest of the animal's life.
How Do You Get Toxoplasmosis?
You can get toxoplasmosis by ingesting food or drink contaminated withT.gondii. This includes:
- Eating uncooked or raw meat that's infected with the parasite, particularly venison, pork, or lamb
- Drinking water or another liquid that’s been contaminated with the parasite
- Eating food that's been contaminated with the parasite through direct contact or indirectly through knives, utensils, or cutting boards
- Accidentally ingesting tiny particles of infected meat after handling it and failing to wash your hands
- Eating fruits or vegetables that have been in contact with soil or water contaminated with the parasite and have not been washed, peeled, or cooked
You can also get toxoplasmosis by swallowing particles of oocyst-laden cat feces, such as if you touch your mouth after cleaning or changing your cat's litter, handle objects that have come into contact with cat feces, or garden without gloves.
In very rare cases, you can get the disease through a blood transfusion or an organ transplant.
Toxoplasmosis and Pregnancy
If you get toxoplasmosis while pregnant, you may pass it on to your unborn baby (congenital toxoplasmosis), even if you don't experience any symptoms.
But if you had the disease before becoming pregnant, your child is not at risk for toxoplasmosis — your immune system confers a protection.
It's sometimes recommended to wait at least 6 months after an infection before becoming pregnant, according to the CDC.
Toxoplasmosis during pregnancy can result in miscarriage, stillbirth, or a child born with signs of the disease, such as an abnormal head size.
Later in life, the child may develop neurological problems, including vision loss, mental disability, and seizures.
Toxoplasmosis can affect numerous organs, including the brain, lung, heart, eyes, and liver.
Many healthy people with the disease don't have any symptoms. But if you have toxoplasmosis, you may experience flu-like symptoms, including:
- Enlarged and tender lymph nodes in the head and neck
- Headache and fever
- Muscle aches and pains
- Sore throat
Eventually, after a few weeks or months, your immune system will fight off the disease.
But the parasite will remain in your body indefinitely in an inactive state — unless your immune system is weakened, at which point the parasite will be able to reactivate.
If you have a weakened immune system, such as from HIV or cancer, you may experience more severe symptoms, such as:
- Fever and headache
- Blurred vision
- Poor coordination
It's also possible to develop ocular (eye) disease from the parasite, usually if you were born with toxoplasmosis. The disease can cause inflammatory retinal lesions and scarring, resulting in eye pain, light sensitivity, tearing, and blurred vision.
Some research suggests thatT.gondiican affect personality and behavior, including causing neuroticism, schizophrenia, depression, and suicidal tendencies. But a 2019 report in the journalPLoS Onecasts doubt on these links.
People with healthy immune systems don't require treatment, but a combination of antibiotics and anti-malaria drugs may help with symptoms.
Drugs that are commonly used include pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine, plus folinic acid (leucovorin).
If necessary, people with weakened immune systems may also be treated with these drugs until their condition improves, although some will require lifelong treatment.
Other drug combinations may also be used in these situations, such as pyrimethamine plus clindamycin.
Pregnant women in their first or early second trimester are treated with spiramycin, while those in their late second or third trimester are treated with pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine plus leucovorin.
Newborns are generally treated with pyrimethamine and sulfadiazine plus leucovorin for their first year of life.
Video: Toxoplasmosis - Plain and Simple
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