Treatment and Prevention of Toxoplasmosis

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Toxoplasmosis (also known as "toxo") in an infectious disease caused by a single-celled parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii. In the vast majority of cases, a toxo infection will be mild and resolve on its own without treatment. If treatment is needed, it would typically involve one or more antibiotic or antimalarial drugs able to clear the infection.

However, in patients with acute toxoplasmosis who are either pregnant or immunocompromised, antimicrobial treatment is sometimes offered to avoid serious complications of infection.

This is especially true in cases of advanced HIV infection.

Photo of Pregnant Woman With Cat
Pregnant Woman With Cat. photo © Getty / Buena Vista Images

Acute Treatment

In people with normal immune systems, most T. gondii infections will have no symptoms at all. Those that do will often be mild and easily mistaken for the flu, even by a doctor. On the off chance toxo is diagnosed, the doctor will most often recommend bed rest and maybe an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen).

Treatment is primarily recommended for people with compromised immune systems who don’t have the immune defenses to fight off an infection. These mainly include people with advanced HIV infection but can also involve organ transplant recipients and people undergoing cancer chemotherapy (both of whom commonly take immune suppressive drugs).

Recommended Therapies

To treat an acute (active) infection, doctors will prescribe antibiotics and other medications able to clear the infection and prevent the disease from progressing. The most commonly prescribed medications include:

  • Trimethoprim-Sulfamethoxazole (TMP-SMX), an antimalarial drug considered the most effective agent in treating an acute toxo infection. (Due to limited availability and great expense of pyrimethamine, TMP-SMX at treatment doses is often being utilized as an alternative for Pyrimethamine-based regimens.)
  • Sulfadiazine, an antibiotic drug used in combination with pyrimethamine
  • Clindamycin, an alternative antibiotic used alongside pyrimethamine
  • Minocycline, an antibiotic used only when a person is resistant to both sulfadiazine and clindamycin
  • Folinic acid used as a supplement to reduce the risk of thrombocytopenia (low platelets)

The course of therapy often lasts for six weeks and usually includes pyrimethamine in combination with at least one other antibiotic.

To prevent recurrence, the antibiotic drug trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole (TMP-SMX) would be taken once daily for four weeks.

In Pregnancy

The transmission of T. gondii from mother to child is rare unless the mother is severely immune compromised. Among these mothers, treatment is commonly prescribed to prevent fetal infection.

Scientists remain less certain about mothers with normal immune function.

Even if a toxo infection were to occur, there remains considerable debate as to how effective antibiotics are in preventing transmission, particularly since it can be difficult to diagnose toxoplasmosis during pregnancy.

To this end, specialist care should be sought if you are pregnant and are at increased risk of toxoplasmosis. Treatment is typically prescribed as follows:

  • If an acute infection occurs during the first trimester, spiramycin would be prescribed from the time of diagnosis to the time of delivery.
  • After the first trimester (or if fetal infection has been confirmed), pyrimethamine, sulfadiazine, and folinic acid would be used from diagnosis to delivery. TMP-SMX based regimens may also be utilized during pregnancy as an alternative for pyrimethamine based regimens.

Pediatric Recommendations

Treatment is strongly recommended for newborns whose mothers were diagnosed with T. gondii during pregnancy. This is true whether or not the mother had symptoms or was given preventive therapy. The duration of treatment (pyrimethamine, sulfadiazine, and folinic acid) can vary but may last for as long as 12 months.

If the infant or child is diagnosed with toxoplasmosis and HIV, TMP-SMX would be prescribed along with HIV therapy. The TMP-SMX would be used to prevent toxoplasmic encephalitis (one of the severe complication of congenital toxoplasmosis) and continued until such time as the HIV drugs are able to normalize the baby’s immune system.

In the event of toxoplasmic encephalitis, corticosteroids may be considered as a treatment. However, in general corticosteroids are reserved for cases with significant associated peri-lesional (i.e. around toxo brain lesion) edema as steroids can have significant side effects and also may make gauging response to therapy more difficult. Anticonvulsive drugs may also be used to prevent seizures.

In People With HIV

Toxoplasmosis in people with HIV can cause serious, and potentially life-threatening, illnesses affecting the brain, eyes, and lungs. In most cases, the disease will be caused by the reactivation of a past infection rather than a new one.

Without the immune defenses to control the infection, a person can quickly succumb to the illness without proper treatment including treatment of the toxoplasmosis and improvement of the immunocompromising condition, in addition to supportive care.

Antiretroviral Therapy

Toxoplasmosis in people with HIV is considered opportunistic because it can only cause disease when the immune system is too weak to stop it.

To this end, the only way to recover from toxoplasmosis is to restore the body immune defenses. Antiretroviral drugs do this by interfering with HIV's ability to replicate. While anti-HIV medications cannot cure HIV disease, these drugs keep the viral population as low as possible so that it can no longer infect and kill the immune cells that are meant to protect us.

Commonly prescribed in a combination of three drugs, combination anti-retroviral therapy for the treatment of HIV can restore the immune function even in severely ill people, often within the span of a few months.

Currently, HIV requires lifelong treatment and includes regular doctor visits to monitor your immune status and check for possible side effects.

Antibiotic Therapy

The treatment of a reactivated T. gondii infection is similar to that of an acute infection and may include:

  • TMP-SMX, sulfadiazine, and folinic acid
  • TMP-SFX clindamycin, and folinic acid
  • Atovaquone (a potent antifungal) used in combination with pyrimethamine and folinic acid
  • Azithromycin (another common antibiotic), pyrimethamine, and folinic acid
  • Atovaquone and sulfadiazine

Once the infection is cleared, TMP-SMX would be prescribed to prevent recurrence and continued until such time as the antiretroviral drugs can restore immune function.

Treating Disease Complications

Three common complications of toxoplasmosis in people with HIV are ocular toxoplasmosis (affecting the eyes), CNS toxoplasmosis (affecting the brain and nervous system), and pulmonary toxoplasmosis. Adjunctive therapies that may be used in addition to antibiotic therapy directed agains the toxoplasmosis parasite include:

Treatment options for ocular toxoplasmosis may include:

  • Systemic corticosteroids to help alleviate inflammation
  • Injections of corticosteroids and clindamycin into the eye
  • The surgical implantation of clindamycin pellets into the eye

Treatment options for CNS toxoplasmosis may include:

  • Systemic corticosteroids to reduce inflammation of the brain and central nervous system (CNS)
  • Anticonvulsive drugs to treat seizures

Treatment options for pulmonary toxoplasmosis may include:

  • Systemic corticosteroids to alleviate inflammation
  • TMX-SMP to treat an active pneumocystis infection of the lungs

Prophylactic Therapies

If you have HIV, prophylactic (preventive) medications may be prescribed if your immune system is compromised.

This can be determined by your CD4 count which measures the number of defensive CD4 T-cells your blood. In a healthy individual, the CD4 count would be between 800 and 1,500. In persons with a compromised immune system, that number would drop below 200.

To prevent toxoplasmosis, TMP-SMX would be prescribed in a daily dose as your CD4 count approaches the "danger zone" of 100. Along with your antiretroviral medication, you would continue taking TMP-SMX until such time as your CD4 count is well above 200 and is able to stay there. You can then stop the antibiotic and continue to take your HIV drugs.

Tools for Prevention

If you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system, you would need to take steps to avoid exposure to T. gondii in your daily life. These safeguards can protect you from toxoplasmosis far better than all of the treatments in the world.

Some of the most effective preventive measures include:

  • Wearing a pair of disposable gloves when cleaning the cat litter box or, better yet, having someone else do it
  • Wearing gloves when you are outdoor gardening
  • Cooking your meat, poultry, and fish well done
  • Freezing meat for 24 hours prior to preparation and consumption
  • Peeling and washing any vegetables or fruits that come from the garden or farmer's market
  • Cleaning cutting boards, knives, or surfaces raw meat may have come into contact with
  • Avoiding unpurified water of any sort
  • Keeping your cat indoors
  • Feeding your cat only canned or dried food and avoiding raw or undercooked meats
  • Covering your child’s sandbox
  • Washing your hands thoroughly with hot water and soap after gardening, playing with your cat, preparing food, or cleaning the sandbox
  • Teaching your children proper handwashing skills

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis in adults?

    Infection with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite can cause flu-like symptoms in people who are immunocompromised, such as swollen glands (enlarged lymph nodes), fever, body aches, headache, and fatigue, that can last for months before going away. However, most people infected with the parasite—about 11% of those 6 and over, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—don't experience symptoms at all.

  • How does toxoplasmosis affect babies?

    A baby can become infected in the womb if their mother comes in contact with the T. gondii parasite just before conception or during pregnancy. This can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth. A baby who's born alive may have an abnormally large or small head and eventually develop seizures, vision loss, and/or mental disabilities.

  • Is there a cure for toxoplasmosis?

    Many symptoms of toxoplasmosis can be effectively treated and resolved. However, once the parasite takes hold in the body, it stays there. It's unlikely to become active and cause illness unless its host's immune system becomes weak.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.