Rabies is a deadly virus spread to people from the saliva of infected animals. The rabies virus is usually transmitted through a bite.
Animals most likely to transmit rabies in the United States include bats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks. In developing countries of Africa and Southeast Asia, stray dogs are the most likely to spread rabies to people.
Once a person begins showing signs and symptoms of rabies, the disease is nearly always fatal. For that reason, anyone who may have a risk of contracting rabies should receive rabies vaccines for protection.
Rabies doesn't cause any signs or symptoms until late in the disease, often just days before death. Signs and symptoms may include:
When to see a doctor
Even if you aren't sure whether you've been bitten, seek medical attention. For instance, a bat that flies into your room while you're sleeping may bite you without waking you. If you awake to find a bat in your room, assume you've been bitten. Also, if you find a bat near a person who can't report a bite, such as a small child or a person with a disability, assume that person has been bitten.
Rabies infection is caused by the rabies virus. The virus is spread through the saliva of infected animals. Infected animals can spread the virus by biting another animal or a person. In rare cases, rabies can be spread when infected saliva gets into an open wound or the mucous membranes, such as the mouth or eyes. This could occur if an infected animal were to lick an open cut on your skin.
Animals that can transmit the rabies virus
Pets and farm animals
There has never been a documented case of human-to-human rabies transmission. In rare cases, the virus has been transmitted to tissue and organ transplant recipients from an infected organ.
Factors that can increase your risk of rabies include:
Preparing for your appointment
If an animal bites you, seek medical attention for the wound. Also tell the doctor about the circumstances of your injury. The doctor will ask:
What you can do in the meantime
If the animal that bit you can be contained or captured without causing more injury, do so. Do not kill the animal with a blow or a shot to the head, as the resulting injuries may make it difficult to perform laboratory tests to determine whether the animal has rabies.
Tell your doctor that you have captured the animal that bit you. Your doctor may then contact the local health department to determine what to do with the animal.
Tests and diagnosis
At the time a rabid animal bites you, there's no way to know whether the animal has transmitted the rabies virus to you. For this reason, treatment to prevent the rabies virus from infecting your body is recommended if the doctor thinks there's a chance you have been exposed to the virus.
Blood and tissue tests are used to diagnose rabies in people who have signs and symptoms of the infection.
Treatments and drugs
There is no specific treatment for rabies infection. Though a small number of people have survived rabies, the disease is usually fatal. For that reason, anyone thought to have been exposed to rabies receives a series of shots to prevent the infection from taking hold.
Treatment for people bitten by animals with rabies
Rabies shots include:
Determining whether the animal that bit you has rabies
Procedures for determining whether an animal has rabies vary by situation. For instance:
You can reduce your risk of coming in contact with rabid animals. Here's how:
Last Updated: 2011-01-28
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