Occupational Health Clinic
September 27, 2011

A parasite called Toxoplasma gondii causes a disease known as toxoplasmosis. Most adults have already had toxoplasmosis; toxoplasmosis shows few or no symptoms 90% of the time. However, pregnant women and individuals with weakened immune systems should be cautious. For them, a Toxoplasma infection can cause serious health problems.

In a research setting, a Toxoplasma infection is unlikely but can occur through contact with cat feces from a Toxoplasma-infected cat that is shedding the organism in its feces. This might happen if you were to accidentally touch your hands to your mouth after cleaning a cat's litter box, for example, or touching anything that has come in contact with cat feces.

Infection is more likely to occur outside the workplace through contact with cat feces or consumption of contaminated water or raw/partially cooked meat (especially pork, lamb, or venison) but on rare occasions has occurred in the research setting.

Symptoms of the infection vary. Most people who become infected with Toxoplasma are not aware of it. Some people may feel as if they have the "flu" with swollen glands or muscle aches and pains that last for a month or more. Severe cases are more likely in individuals who have weak immune systems. Occasionally, even persons with healthy immune systems may experience damage to the brain, eyes or other organs. Symptoms of eye toxoplasmosis can include reduced vision, blurred vision, pain (often with bright light), redness of the eye, and sometimes tearing. Babies who are infected while still in the womb have no symptoms at birth, but may develop symptoms later in life. A small percentage of infected newborns have serious eye or brain damage at birth.

If you are pregnant or have concerns about toxoplasmosis, talk to a health care provider in the Occupational Health Clinic (OHC). The OHC may order blood tests specific for toxoplasmosis. The results can help OHC determine whether you have a Toxoplasma infection and if it is a recent (acute) infection.

Once a diagnosis of toxoplasmosis is confirmed, you and your health care provider can discuss whether treatment is necessary. In an otherwise healthy person who is not pregnant, treatment usually is not needed. If symptoms occur, they typically go away within a few weeks to months. For individuals with weak immune systems, the only risk is reactivation of the infection. For pregnant women or persons who have weakened immune systems, medications are available to treat toxoplasmosis.

To protect yourself from toxoplasmosis:

  • Wear gloves when working with cats or litter boxes, gardening or landscaping.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after working with cats, gardening or landscaping.
  • Change the litter box daily. The Toxoplasma parasite does not become infectious until one to two days after it is shed in a cat's feces.

Keywords: toxoplasmosis, pregnancy, animal, cat