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Toxoplasmosis in Pregnancy

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Toxoplasmosis in the First Trimester is Disastrous

Learn about toxoplasmosis in pregnancy.

Toxoplasmosis is a common parasitic infection that affects over 60 million people in the U.S. every year. Most people who carry the disease have very few symptoms because their immune system keeps the parasite dormant and prevents it from causing illness. When symptoms are present, they tend to be mild and flu-like, such as swollen glands, fatigue, muscle aches, fatigue, and fever.

If you're exposed to toxoplasmosis for the first time during pregnancy, it can have disastrous affects on your baby's health.

You can get toxoplasmosis from handling cat litter that is infected with the parasite. (Indoor cats rarely carry the disease. Outside cats can get toxoplasmosis from contaminated soil or by eating infected meats – from birds or mice.)

You can also become infected by eating uncooked meat from animals that were infected or by consuming food that came into contact with contaminated meat.

Active infection only occurs once in your life.

Once you are infected, the parasite lies dormant (inactive) in your neural and muscle tissue for the rest of your life. However, you will have built an immunity against it, so it will not cause any side effects or harm unless you have a compromised immune system (such as AIDS).

If toxoplasmosis is transmitted to your baby, he or she is said to have congenital toxoplasmosis. This parasitic infection can damage your child's eyes, nervous system, and ears. Your baby may also face blindness, severe mental retardation, and neurological problems later in life. Babies who are exposed to toxoplasmosis in the first trimester face the most severe consequences.

A majority of infected babies do not have any symptoms present at birth, but they will develop them later in life. If signs are present at birth, they may include fever, swollen lymph nodes, jaundice, an usually large or small head, anemia, and an enlarged liver or spleen. Infected babies are treated immediately after birth to prevent long-term problems.

Luckily, women who developed immunity to the parasite before they became pregnant will not pass it to their baby.

Doctors recommend that women with new toxoplasmosis infections wait at least six month before getting pregnant.

If you are pregnant and get toxoplasmosis, don't fret. Certain medications and antibiotics are used to treat the infection. Prevention, however, is key to protecting your unborn child's safety.

To prevent toxoplasmosis:

  • Be sure to cook meat thoroughly. Use a food thermometer as an extra precaution. Your meat should not be pink; the juices should be clear.

  • Wash all cutting boards, utensils, dishes, sink, and counters that have been in contact with raw or undercooked meat with hot, soapy water.

  • Always thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables.

  • Avoid drinking unfiltered water.

  • If you are pregnant, avoid traveling to underdeveloped countries, especially South America, where stronger strains of the parasite exist.

  • Avoid changing your cat's litter box. If you cannot avoid this chore, always wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water after cooking or gardening.

  • When you garden, always wear waterproof gloves.
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