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Rabies

 

Definition

Rabies is an often deadly viral infection that is mainly spread by infected animals.

Causes

Rabies is spread by infected saliva that enters the body through a bite or broken skin. The virus travels from the wound to the brain, where it causes swelling, or inflammation. This inflammation leads to symptoms of the disease. Most rabies deaths occur in children.

In the past, human cases in the United States usually resulted from a dog bite, but recently, more cases of human rabies have been linked to bats and raccoons. Although dog bites are a common cause of rabies in developing countries, there have been no reports of rabies caused by dog bites in the United States for a number of years due to widespread animal vaccination.

Other wild animals that can spread the rabies virus include:

  • Foxes
  • Skunks

Very rarely, rabies has been transmitted without an actual bite. This is believed to have been caused by infected saliva that has gotten into the air.

The United Kingdom had once completely eradicated rabies, but recently, rabies-infected bats have been found in Scotland.

Symptoms

The actual time between infection and when you get sick (called the "incubation period") ranges from 10 days - 7 years. The average incubation period is 3 - 7 weeks.

Symptoms may include:

Signs and tests

If an animal bites you, try to gather as much information about the animal as possible. Call your local animal control authorities to safely capture the animal. If rabies is suspected, the animal will be watched for signs of rabies.

A special test called immunofluorescence is used to look at the brain tissue after an animal is dead. This test can reveal whether or not the animal had rabies.

The same test can be used to check for rabies in humans, using a piece of skin from the neck. Doctors may also look for the rabies virus in your saliva or spinal fluid.

Support Groups

Expectations (prognosis)

It's possible to prevent rabies if immunization is given within 2 days of the bite. To date, no one in the United States has developed rabies when given the vaccine promptly and appropriately.

Once the symptoms appear, few people survive the disease. Death from respiratory failure usually occurs within 7 days after symptoms start.

Calling your health care provider

Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if an animal bites you.

Complications

Untreated, rabies can lead to coma and death.

In rare cases, some people may have an allergic reaction to the rabies vaccine.

Treatments

Clean the wound well with soap and water, and seek professional medical help. You'll need a doctor to thoroughly clean the wound and remove any foreign objects. Most of the time, stitches should not be used for animal bite wounds.

If there is any risk of rabies, you will be given a series of a preventive vaccine. This is generally given in five doses over 28 days.

Most patients also receive a treatment called human rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG). This is given the day the bite occured.

There is no known effective treatment for people with symptoms of a rabies infection.

Prevention

To help prevent rabies:

  • Avoid contact with animals you don't know.
  • Get vaccinated if you work in a high-risk occupation or travel to countries with a high rate of rabies.
  • Make sure your pets receive the proper immunizations. Dogs and cats should get rabies vaccines by 4 months of age, followed by a booster shot 1 year later, and another one every 1 or 3 years, depending on the type of vaccine used.
  • Follow quarantine regulations on importing dogs and other mammals in disease-free countries.
References

Manning SE, Rupprecht CE, Fishbein D, et al. Human rabies prevention. Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices; May 23, 2008. No. RR-3.

Weber EJ. Rabies. In: Marx J, ed. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 6th ed. St Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2006:chap 129.


Review Date: 9/28/2008
Reviewed By: Jatin M. Vyas, PHD, MD, Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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