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Toxoplasmosis During Pregnancy

What is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection that babies can get from their mothers before birth. If you have this infection during pregnancy, it can harm the baby.

How does it occur?
Tiny organisms called Toxoplasma gondii cause the disease. These organisms are protozoa, not bacteria. People are most commonly infected by eating raw or undercooked meats, especially lamb or pork. The bowel movements of some cats and insects in the soil also contain the organisms. You can become infected by not washing your hands after handling a cat or cleaning a litter box.

An unborn baby may be infected any time before delivery. The infection passes to the baby through the placenta. The earlier the baby is infected, the more severe the effects are. Also, the later in the pregnancy that the mother is infected, the more likely it is that the baby will become infected. If you are exposed to toxoplasmosis more than 6 months before you become pregnant, you are not likely to pass the infection to your baby. If your first exposure occurs a few months before your pregnancy or early in pregnancy, your baby has a high risk of becoming infected. There are tests you can have to see if you were exposed earlier.

What are the symptoms?
In most cases the mother's symptoms of the disease are mild. Sometimes there are no symptoms. If symptoms appear, it is usually about 10 days after exposure to infected, poorly cooked meat or contact with an infected cat's bowel movements. Symptoms the mother may have are:

  • rash
  • fever
  • weakness
  • swollen glands
  • night sweats
  • muscle pain

Many infected babies do not show any symptoms at birth, but they may develop serious problems later. If a newborn has been infected with toxoplasma, some possible symptoms or problems are:

  • fever
  • rash
  • swollen glands
  • enlarged liver and spleen
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • eye infection
  • hearing loss
  • mental retardation
  • extra fluid that puts pressure on the brain
  • a brain that is too small or too large
  • seizures

Toxoplasmosis may cause miscarriage or stillbirth (a baby who is dead at birth).

How is it diagnosed?
The healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and examine you. Blood tests will be done to see if you are infected.

If you are infected while you are pregnant, the following tests may be done to see if the baby is infected:

  • amniocentesis
  • ultrasound scan

The baby may have the following tests after birth to check for infection:

  • a physical exam, including looking for infection in the eyes
  • blood test
  • X-rays of the head
  • lab tests of fluid from the brain or spine

How is it treated?
If you are infected during your pregnancy and tests suggest that your baby is infected, you may be given medicines to treat the infection. The earlier you get treatment, the less likely it is that your baby will have symptoms of the disease after birth. A baby who is found to be infected after birth can also be treated with these medicines.

The dietary supplement folic acid may also be a part of your treatment.

How long will the effects last?
Most toxoplasma infections are cured within a few months after treatment.

If a baby is infected late in the pregnancy, the baby may have a mild form of the disease and may not have any symptoms. If a baby is infected early in the pregnancy, the baby is more likely to suffer severe permanent effects, such as:

  • loss of vision or hearing
  • learning disabilities or mental retardation
  • seizures
  • death

At least one study has shown that a large percentage of infected babies treated with medicines for the infection have normal intelligence and have not developed hearing loss. Eye infections may recur in childhood, but retreatment with the drugs appears to reduce the chance of vision loss. Some treated babies still develop lasting disabilities, possibly because drug treatment may not reverse damage that occurred before birth.

How can I help prevent toxoplasmosis?
To help prevent getting toxoplasmosis while you are pregnant:

  • Eat only well-cooked meat.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling raw meat.
  • Avoid handling cats, especially outdoor cats.
  • If you have contact with a cat, wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
  • Avoid contact with cat litter and sand or soil that may contain cat bowel movements.
  • Have someone else clean the litter box every 24 hours.
  • Wear gloves when you garden. Wash your hands thoroughly after working in the yard or with soil.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2008-10-08
Last reviewed: 2008-09-16
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Women's Health Advisor 2009.1 Index