Toxoplasmosis in Pregnancy: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

A recent study by scientists has warned that keeping cats in childhood has been linked to mental illnesses like Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder in later life. That might pose a risk to your health, and your future baby’s.

What about during pregnancy? Let’s look at toxoplasmosis, an illness that could affect your fetus – the causes, the symptoms, the danger posed to fetus, the diagnosis and treatment.

Causes and symptoms of toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is caused by the Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that is about 2 to 3 μm wide and about 5 to 7 μm long (while in its first infectious stage, the tachyzoites). It’s said that about every 1 in 3 human beings are being infected by the parasite. According to the CDC, about 60 million people in the U.S. are infected with the parasite although few actually have symptoms.1

Healthy people usually have the immunity against the parasite, so even when infected, the only symptoms that appear are those similar to that of the common cold. Of those infected, about 10 to 20% might have swollen lymph nodes, muscle pain, fever, or fatigue. These symptoms seldom lead to a serious illness, so there is no need to worry.

Once you’re infected, your body is able to build immunity against it, so there is no risk of catching the parasite a second time round.

How is toxoplasmosis transmitted

cat

Toxoplasmosis has an incubation period of 5 days to a week before the symptoms, if any, start appearing. Most people are infected through their mouths, or more specifically, through food. This parasite is found in more than 200 mammals and birds like pigs, goats, rats and chicken, but these animals do not transmit the parasite to humans.

However, animals from the Felidae (cats and related relatives) are the only known definitive hosts that pass the parasite to humans. The parasite is expelled through their feces, and indirect or direct contact with the feces with parasites can cause one to become infected as well.

Effects of toxoplasmosis in pregnancy on the fetus

pregnant woman lying on couch

Toxoplasmosis during pregnancy is especially dangerous because the parasite can cause a vertically transmitted infection and infect the fetus by passing through the placenta. If the fetus is infected, they could be born with congenital diseases.

If the infection takes place in the first trimester, there is a possibility of a miscarriage. If it happens in the second trimester and onward, this could result in a low-birth-weight baby, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), jaundice, swelling in the baby’s organs and lymph nodes. Infection in the third trimester can cause calcium to build up in the brain, resulting in brain calcifications, hydrocephalus (excess accumulation of fluid in the brain), visual handicaps, or motor skill disorders in fetuses.

It’s said that the risk of toxoplasmosis being transmitted from mother to fetus is about 25% if the mother is infected in the first trimester, 60 to 70% during the later stages of pregnancy. However, fetuses infected in the first trimester have more serious symptoms.

Take toxoplasmosis test before or during pregnancy

woman doctor hospital

Once you’re infected by the Toxoplasma gondii, antibodies are made in your body so that you don’t fall ill again. If you catch toxoplasmosis 6 months or more before you became pregnant, then there will be no effects on the fetus. If you intend to start a family in the near future, it’s advisable that you go for a toxoplasmosis test – a blood test that tests for the presence of antibodies.

You can do this test before or during pregnancy, but it’s recommended that you do it as soon as possible. Knowing whether or not you have the antibodies can help set you at ease or caution you to take more precaution when around cats or when eating undercooked or raw meats. This could change the course of your baby’s future, so if you can, talk to your OB-GYN about taking the test.

Treatment of toxoplasmosis in pregnancy

pregnant woman medicine

The complete absence of or few symptoms when one has toxoplasmosis means that you do not require treatment. However, once you know you’re infected and if you’re pregnant, you have to take antibiotics like spiramycin to try to prevent the parasite from infecting your fetus.

Safeguard yourself against toxoplasmosis in pregnancy

litter tray cat

The toxoplasma gondii is transmitted only by faeco-oral (stools to mouth) transmission and is not an airborne or percutaneous (through needles) infection. Thus, eating contaminated meats or coming into contact with feline feces can put you at risk.

However, indirect contact with cats’ feces, for example, touching the litter tray which has traces of feces with parasites, can cause you to be infected as well. If you have cats at home, try to get your family members to be in charge of cleaning out the cat’s waste for the time being; if you’re doing it, make sure your hands are disinfected thoroughly after that.

Don’t fear toxoplasmosis too much during pregnancy

pregnant woman note smile

Knowing that such a danger exists means you might have second thoughts hugging and petting your very own pet cat, or cats around you. You might be a cat lover, but it might be time for you to give up close contact with your favorite felines during pregnancy for the sake of your child. It’s only a small, temporal sacrifice that could save your baby, so do what you can!