Every few months, there is a wave of scary articles about yet another nasty virus or bacterium that presumably can kill you. Toxoplasmosis is one of such scares, but is it a real threat?
Image Credit: amazonaws.com
Look what the cat dragged in
We have already written about the cat-scratch disease (ссылка!), caused by the parasite bartonella. Much more common, though, is toxoplasmosis, caused by Toxoplasma gondii: more than 30% of people have it! Before we proceed to symptoms and risks, let’s take a closer look at T. gondii – it is a fascinating parasite!
Generally, T. gondii is found in raw meat and in cat feces. All kinds of animals can get infected, but only cats excrete the parasite; to get toxoplasma, however, a cat must first eat some raw meat – or a mouse or rat. Interestingly, T. gondii can influence this process: it changes the brain chemistry of a rat in which it lives to make the rat lose its fear of cats! Some studies even suggest that such infected rats get excited by the smell of cats and run towards them! Thus, rats carrying toxoplasma get eaten more often.
You can get toxoplasmosis by cleaning after your cat and then accidentally touching your mouth, or by working in the garden if it’s visited by cats, or simply by eating raw mean – lamb, pork, or beef.
How to know you have toxo
Healthy people often don’t develop any symptoms, but if they do, it resemble flu:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Muscle pain.
Symptoms begin 2-3 weeks after infection, and toxoplasmosis is very often misdiagnosed to be flu. You need a special blood test to detect T. gondii, and most people never find out they’ve had it. Once in your system, the microorganism forms tiny cysts in your brain and muscles, which are dormant and not dangerous at all for healthy people.
Caution! Some forms of lymphoma have absolutely the same symptoms as toxo. If your lymph nodes do not return to normal after 2 months and the fatigue or fever persists, go to the doctor!
Who’s at risk
For some groups of people, toxoplasmosis does present danger:
- People living with HIV/AIDS – they have a weak immune system, and toxo can reactivate many times, causing eye infections, breathing problems, and even encephalitis (more about complications here);
- Chemotherapy patients – their white blood cell count is often low, and any infection – including toxo – can require urgent medical assistance.
- Pregnant women and unborn children – if you get infected while pregnant, you can pass toxo on to your baby (congenital toxoplasmosis). This often results in miscarriages. Babies who do survive may not exhibit any symptoms for many years, but later many develop learning disabilities and hearing loss.
Protect yourself from toxo
If you are healthy and not planning a pregnancy, there is no real need to worry. If you are at risk, follow our advice:
- Don’t eat raw meat;
- Wash all fruit and vegetables carefully;
- Use different knives and cutting boards for raw meat and other food;
- Wear gloves when cleaning after your cat and working in the garden;
- Wash your hands often;
- Don’t let your cat hunt outside;
- Don’t feed your cat raw meat.
In spite of the danger to unborn babies, screening for toxoplasmosis is rarely offered to pregnant women. If you are planning to have a baby, be proactive: get tested before pregnancy to know if you already carry T. gondii (in which case your baby is safe) and then during pregnancy. If you do get infected, you will be given antibiotics to minimize the risks.
Don’t believe headlines like “your cat will make you crazy”: no link has been found between toxo and mental illness or suicide rates. But while there is no reason to panic, there is every reason to be careful – and informed.