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Understanding Rabies

Rabies is a virus that infects the nerves and the brain. Any warm-blooded animal, including humans, can get it. It is spread in the saliva of an infected animal. Rabies can be treated. Untreated rabies is almost always fatal.

What causes of rabies?

Infections occur when saliva or brain tissue from an infected animal enters another mammal’s body. This can be through a bite or scrape that breaks the skin. Rarely, infection can be spread through a mucous membrane, such as the eye or mouth.

In North America, raccoons, bats, foxes, and skunks are most likely to carry the rabies virus. Dogs, cats, and ferrets can also get rabies. Many people have their pets vaccinated. Because of this, pets do not pose a high risk for rabies in this region. This is not the case in other parts of the world.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

In most cases, symptoms of rabies start 1 to 3 months after exposure.  But in some cases, they may not show up for more than a year. First symptoms may include:

  • Feeling unwell

  • Weakness

  • Fatigue

  • Low-grade fever

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Headache

Over many days to a few weeks more symptoms may develop. These include tingling, itching, numbness, or a burning sensation where the bite occurred.  It is very important to talk with your healthcare provider right away if you think you have been exposed to rabies. Once these symptoms develop, the infection may be far advanced.  The end stages of rabies are almost always fatal. Symptoms at that point include restlessness and confusion, drooling, pain when trying to drink, muscle weakness, numbness, and paralysis.

What to do

  • If you have been bitten or scratched by a wild animal, contact your healthcare provider right away.

  • If you have been bitten or scratched by a pet, and you do not know if it has had a rabies vaccine, call your local animal control department or your local public health department. The animal will probably be confined with its owner for 10 days. If the animal does not develop rabies in that time, you are not at risk of getting sick.

How is rabies treated?

Treatments focus on reducing the risk of developing rabies after a bite or scratch. They include:

  • Cleaning the wound thoroughly. The risk of infection can be reduced by washing the bite or scratch with soap and water, or water and iodine.

  • Getting a tetanus vaccine, if you have not had one in 10 years or more. This is to prevent infection with tetanus. This is a bacterium that can cause another serious illness known as lockjaw.

  • Getting a series of shots to prevent rabies infection. These are usually given in the arm, like a flu shot. They include the rabies vaccine and the human rabies antibody to help your body fight the virus. This treatment can work even after rabies has entered the body, but not after symptoms begin.

What are the possible complications of rabies?

Rabies infections that are not treated almost always result in death. By the time symptoms of rabies appear, it is usually too late for treatment to work. If you think you have been exposed to rabies, it is very important to talk with your healthcare provider right away. He or she will tell you whether you should be treated.

How can I prevent rabies?

If you don’t take unnecessary risks, you don’t need to be afraid of getting rabies. To avoid exposure:

  • Don’t handle wild animals or stray dogs or cats. Report strays and ill animals to animal control.

  • Vaccinate your pets. Urge your neighbors to do the same.

  • Try to limit your pets’ exposure to wild animals.

  • If you are traveling to other countries, ask your healthcare provider or a travel clinic about vaccines you should have.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • A bite or scratch from a wild animal that has broken the skin. This might be from a raccoon or skunk.

  • A bite or scratch from a pet animal that has broken the skin, and you cannot be sure that it has had a current rabies vaccine.

  • You or your child may have been scratched or bitten by a bat. Bites and scratches from bats may not be noticed, especially by children.

© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.