Understanding Toxoplasmosis and How to Avoid the Risks During Pregnancy

Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a common parasite found in raw or undercooked meats, game meats, unwashed fresh produce, dirt or sand, and animal feces. While more than 40 million people in the United States have the parasite, healthy people will generally not experience any symptoms and may not even know they have been infected.

However, toxoplasmosis is more dangerous during pregnancy because you may pass the infection to your unborn baby, who may develop serious health problems. Up to one in two babies who are infected with toxoplasmosis during pregnancy are born early, and the infection increases the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth.

Woman’s Hospital urges women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant to learn about toxoplasmosis and understand how they can avoid risk to themselves and their unborn baby.
Most babies born with toxoplasmosis have no symptoms. But about 1 in 10 babies (10 percent) with the infection are born with problems, including:

  • Eye infections or eye inflammation
  • Swollen liver and spleen
  • Jaundice (when a baby’s eyes and skin look yellow.)
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Fluid on the brain (hydrocephalus)
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Large head size (macrocephaly) or smaller-than-normal head size (microcephaly)

How can you catch toxoplasmosis?

Most cases of toxoplasmosis are from eating contaminated food. Infections can occur by:

  • Eating raw or undercooked meat
  • Eating game meats such as venison, rabbit or duck
  • Consuming unpasteurized dairy products
  • Eating unwashed fruits or vegetables
  • Coming into contact with animal feces through litter boxes, dirt or sand

What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis?

While most people with toxoplasmosis may not experience any signs of the disease, some report flu-like symptoms such as:

  • High fever
  • Aching muscles
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen glands
  • General feeling of illness

How can I reduce my risk of getting infected?

There are many ways to reduce your risk including:

  • Do not eat raw, undercooked or cured meats
  • Cook all meats until there is no pink
  • Freeze game meats such as venison, rabbit or duck for up to 72 hours before consuming
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products
  • Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables before eating
  • Wear gloves while doing any gardening and wash hands after touching any dirt or sand
  • If you have a cat that uses a litter box, have someone else clean the box whenever possible. If you must clean the litter box, wear gloves and wash hands thoroughly after cleaning.

How is toxoplasmosis diagnosed and treated?

If you suspect you may have toxoplasmosis, discuss your symptoms and risks with your doctor to determine if you should get tested. A simple blood test will determine if you have been infected and your doctor will discuss the best treatment plan to protect you and your unborn baby.

Is it safe to breastfeed if I have toxoplasmosis?

Yes, toxoplasmosis cannot pass through breast milk to your baby.

How can I learn more?

In addition to talking with your healthcare provider, there are many resources available to learn more about toxoplasmosis such as: