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What are the Risks of Toxoplasmosis in Pregnancy?

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  • Written By: Kathy Heydasch
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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Toxoplasmosis in pregnancy occurs when a mother passes on an infection of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii to her unborn child through the placenta. This is also called congenital toxoplasmosis. Risks for the mother are mild, but risks for the unborn child are extremely high, and can result in a host of serious side effects. These side effects may be mild at first, but could manifest into severe problems in adolescence if left untreated.

The mother’s symptoms of toxoplasmosis in pregnancy include enlarged lymph nodes, headache, and muscle pain, very similar to flu symptoms. Cats are the number one carrier of the parasite, and so pregnant women should take care to avoid exposure to cat waste and kitty litter. Other animals, like birds, are prone to carry the parasite. Toxoplasmosis can also be spread through human blood transfusions or by eating undercooked meat, with the latter being much more common.

Nearly half of all unborn children that are exposed to toxoplasmosis in pregnancy are born prematurely, and typically there are some early signs of problems. Toxoplasmosis in an infant can result in mild or severe damage to the skin, eyes, ears and nervous system. Infection of toxoplasmosis early in pregnancy means a mother is less likely to transmit the parasite to the child; however, the earlier the infection, the more dangerous the symptoms can be for the child.

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The tests for toxoplasmosis in pregnancy might not be a routine procedure for a doctor’s office, so sometimes a patient must request it specifically. If a test is administered and the result is positive, there are treatments available which can possibly prevent infection of the fetus. If the fetus is found to test positive, an antibiotic treatment can drastically decrease the risk of side effects and can sometimes cure the infection completely. If not, antibiotics can be administered up to a year after birth.

Pregnant women should be tested for toxoplasmosis in pregnancy, despite the fact that the number of women who test positive is still relatively small, because it is important to ensure the mother does not pass the toxoplasmosis to her child. In addition, exposure to toxoplasmosis up to 6-9 months before conceiving could also put the child at risk. Tests for toxoplasmosis in mothers are given through a simple blood test. Tests for toxoplasmosis in the unborn children may be done in a variety of ways, including fetal blood testing, amniotic fluid testing and abdominal ultrasounds.

Steps pregnant women can take to avoid exposure to the parasite include cooking food to a proper temperature and washing all fruits and vegetables thoroughly. In addition, pregnant women should wash their hands thoroughly after coming into contact with soil or kitty litter which might contain cat feces. If possible, they should avoid contact with soil and kitty litter altogether.

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