Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii).
The infection is common worldwide, including in the UK, but it's rarely reported because there are often no symptoms.
Around 350 cases are reported in England and Wales each year, but it's thought the actual number of infections could be as high as 350,000.
Estimates suggest up to a third of people in the UK will be infected by toxoplasmosis at some point in their life, but most people won't notice it.
Is toxoplasmosis serious?
Toxoplasmosis is usually nothing to worry about because the immune system is normally strong enough to fight the infection and stop it from causing serious illness. After getting the infection, most people are immune to it for the rest of their life.
However, it can lead to serious problems in:
- women who become infected while they're pregnant –toxoplasmosis could cause a miscarriage or stillbirth, or the infection could spread to the baby and cause serious complications (congenital toxoplasmosis)
- people with weak immune systems, such as those who've had an organ transplant, those with HIV, and those having chemotherapy – this could mean the infection is able to spread to the eyes, heart, lungs or brain
Congenital toxoplasmosis is rare in the UK, with estimates suggesting only around 1 in every 10,000 to 30,000 babies are born with the condition.
Read more about the symptoms of toxoplasmosis and complications of toxoplasmosis.
How do you get toxoplasmosis?
The parasite that causes toxoplasmosis is found in the poo (faeces) of infected cats and in infected meat.
You can become infected if the parasites get into your mouth – for example, by:
- handling or eating raw, cured or undercooked infected meat – particularly lamb or pork
- eating food (such as unwashed fruit and vegetables) or drinking water contaminated with infected cat's poo
- accidentally getting contaminated soil or cat litter in your mouth
Toxoplasmosis can't be passed from person to person, other than in rare cases, such as receiving an infected organ during an organ transplant, or if a newly infected mother passes the infection on to her unborn baby.
Read more about the causes of toxoplasmosis.
Testing for toxoplasmosis
A blood test can be carried out to see if you have been infected with the T. gondii parasite.
Testing may be carried out if there's a chance you have the infection and you have symptoms or you're at risk of serious problems. For example, it may be recommended if you're diagnosed with HIV.
In the UK, testing for toxoplasmosis isn't routinely carried out during pregnancy. If you're concerned you might have been infected while you're pregnant, talk to your midwife, GP or obstetrician about the possibility of getting tested.
Read more about how toxoplasmosis is diagnosed.
In otherwise healthy people, toxoplasmosis doesn't usually require treatment.
Medication to treat the infection is usually only used to treat severe cases or prevent complications in people at risk, such as those with a weak immune system. Pyrimethamine plus sulfadiazine or azithromycin alone are the main medications used.
Pregnant women infected with toxoplasmosis for the first time may be given medication to reduce the risk of the unborn baby also becoming infected or damaged, although it's not clear exactly how effective this is.
Read more about treating toxoplasmosis.
There are a number of measures you can take to reduce your risk of developing toxoplasmosis, including:
- wearing gloves while gardening, particularly when handling soil
- washing your hands before handling food
- not eating raw or undercooked meat
- washing utensils and other kitchenware thoroughly after preparing raw meat
- washing fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating them
- emptying cat litter trays every day
- avoiding direct contact with cat poo in cat litter or soil
It's particularly important to take these precautions if you're pregnant or have a weakened immune system.
Read more about preventing toxoplasmosis.