What is Toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. It is one of the most common parasites, found all over the world and infecting over 40 million people in the U.S. It is found in contaminated soil, uncooked meat — especially pork, venison and lamb — and cat feces (x).
Toxoplasma can thrive in the human body for long periods of time, sometimes for an entire lifetime (x). But most people with the infection don’t show any symptoms because their immune systems usually defend the body from the parasite and prevent it from causing illness. However, toxoplasmosis can be severe in people with a weakened immune system and may cause serious complications (x).
Risk Factors for Toxoplasmosis
Toxoplasmosis is caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. A Toxoplasma infection occurs when an individual comes into contact with the parasite and it gains entry into the body. This can happen in several ways.
Toxoplasma gondii can be found in nearly all warm-blooded animals but cats are the main hosts. They can carry it if they eat raw meat or hunt infected animals, like birds or rodents (x). The parasite breeds in the cat’s intestines and is released in its feces. Humans are exposed to the parasites through the cat’s feces in litter, skin contact, dirt containing cat droppings, soil in their gardens and food exposed to the infected feces (x).
Pork, venison and lamb are especially likely to carry Toxoplasma gondii. Animals get the parasite if they eat contaminated grass or feed. Humans expose themselves to it if they eat undercooked or raw meat or if they don’t wash their hands after handling it. It can also spread through shellfish, contaminated water or drinking unpasteurized milk or milk products, such as cheese (x, x, x).
Unwashed Fruits or Vegetables
This is a common way people attract the toxoplasmosis parasite. The surface of the fruit or vegetables may be contaminated from the soil (x). People should thoroughly wash or peel any fruit or vegetable before eating it.
Weakened Immune Systems
If someone has a weakened or compromised immune system, they may have more severe toxoplasmosis symptoms if they contract Toxoplasma, such as people with HIV/AIDS and chemotherapy patients (x). For example, an individual with HIV/AIDS may acquire the parasite if they have not had it before or if they have had it, the infection may reactivate (x). Chemotherapy also weakens the immune system, which makes it difficult for the body to fight infections and research concludes that toxoplasmosis is a life-threatening infection in chemotherapy patients (x).
If a mother contracts the infection during pregnancy or just before conception, she can pass it on to her baby (x). Research estimates that up to 4,000 newborns in the U.S. are born with congenital toxoplasmosis (x, x). Transmission can happen even if the mother does not show any symptoms. Toxoplasmosis can be life-threatening in an unborn baby and more severe after birth.
A baby is more likely to contract toxoplasmosis if the mother becomes infected in the third trimester and is less likely to become infected if the mother becomes infected during the first trimester. The earlier in the pregnancy the infection occurs, the more severe the outcome for the baby. Early infections can end in miscarriage or stillbirth. But if the mother is infected before she conceives, it usually will not spread to the baby because they will both build an immunity to it (x, x).
Other Risk Factors
- Contaminated eating utensils and cutting boards (x, x)
- Organ transplant or blood transfusion (x, x)
- Immunosuppressant drugs (x, x)
Most people infected with toxoplasmosis are not even aware that they have the infection. However, some people may experience flu-like symptoms including fever, fatigue, malaise, muscle aches, headaches and sometimes swollen lymph nodes. The infection may also cause inflammation in the lungs, heart muscle and in the eyes (x, x).
Ocular Toxoplasmosis Symptoms
When the parasite attacks the eyes, it causes ocular toxoplasmosis. The individual may experience inflammation, redness in the eyes, blurry and deteriorating vision, sensitivity to bright light and sometimes watering. The infection mostly affects the retina at the back of the eye (x, x).
Severe Toxoplasmosis Symptoms
Symptoms usually last for about a month, but they can continue for longer. People who are most at risk for developing severe toxoplasmosis are infants who contracted the disease from their mothers during pregnancy and people with weakened immune systems, such as HIV/AIDS patients, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy or those who have had a recent organ transplant. These conditions can also reactivate infection.
Congenital Toxoplasmosis Symptoms
Most babies born with congenital toxoplasmosis do not show any symptoms at birth but they can appear months or years after the baby is born. The symptoms can include fever, jaundice, skin rash, anemia, bruises or bleeding under the skin and swelling in the liver or spleen. The disease may also damage the brain and nervous system, causing seizures, eye damage, hearing loss and mental disability. Infants may also develop hydrocephalus, in which cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the brain (x, x, x, x).
When it faces a threat from a harmful substance, the body produces proteins to fight it called antibodies. If an individual is exposed to Toxoplasma gondii, there will be antibodies in their blood. Toxoplasmosis diagnostic tests check for the antibodies. Specifically, it will be a blood test (x).
If the blood test is positive, it doesn’t mean the person is infected with toxoplasmosis at the moment. If antibodies develop against a specific antigen, they stay in the bloodstream to help protect the body against any future infection.
It usually takes 23 days for the body to produce antibodies. So an early test can produce a false negative if the body hasn’t produced antibodies yet. If the test is still negative after a few more weeks, then the result is most likely accurate (x).
Diagnosis in Pregnant Women
Pregnant women will likely receive extra diagnostic tests. About 15 weeks into the pregnancy, they will have an amniocentesis, which uses a long needle to extract a small amount of fluid from the amniotic sac. The fluid can determine if there are any signs of infection. The doctor can also perform a cordocentesis to sample the baby’s blood from the umbilical cord. If the tests are positive, the next step is an ultrasound that creates images of the baby to show any damage. However, even if there is no damage in the ultrasound scan, it does not necessarily mean the baby is not infected (x, x, x).
Most healthy individuals do not require any form of treatment if they are infected with toxoplasmosis. If symptoms are more severe, especially if the person has a compromised immune system, the infection will probably be treated with sulfadiazine and pyrimethamine. Pregnant women will receive the same medication, along with spiramycin (x, x).
Congenital Toxoplasmosis Treatment
- Avoid skin contact with cat feces
- Do not feed raw meat to cats
- Avoid stray cats
- Avoid contaminated water
- Wash kitchen utensils thoroughly
- Wear gloves when gardening or handling soil
- Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat or shellfish
- Avoid unpasteurized milk products
- Cook food to safe temperatures
Supplements for Toxoplasmosis
Supplements and other natural remedies can help treat or prevent toxoplasmosis by maintaining your overall health.
Berberine HCL Powder
From the phellodendron plant, berberine promotes heart health and cholesterol. Research has evaluated the ability of berberine, a natural plant alkaloid, to inhibit Toxoplasma gondii (x). As a dietary supplement, take 500 mg twice daily, or as directed by a physician. Unless you have a doctor’s approval, do not take it for more than three months.
Garlic Extract Powder
The Bottom Line
Toxoplasmosis is a common infection caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. Infected people may not show any symptoms at all, if their immune system is strong enough to fight it. Cats are the common carriers of the parasite, which spreads through their feces. Other risk factors include exposure to contaminated food, water, unpasteurized milk and compromised immune systems.
Most people do not require treatment for the infection. But if the symptoms are severe, doctors will prescribe antibiotics to treat it. Natural solutions — such as supplements like papaya extract, garlic extract and berberine — can help prevent toxoplasmosis by promoting a strong immune system.