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Rabies is a preventable viral disease of mammals most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. The vast majority of rabies cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year occur in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes.
The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. The early symptoms of rabies in people are similar to that of many other illnesses, including fever, headache, and general weakness or discomfort. As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these symptoms.
What are the signs and symptoms of rabies?
The first symptoms of rabies may be very similar to those of the flu including general weakness or discomfort, fever, or headache. These symptoms may last for days.
There may be also discomfort or a prickling or itching sensation at the site of bite, progressing within days to symptoms of cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, confusion, agitation. As the disease progresses, the person may experience delirium, abnormal behavior, hallucinations, and insomnia.
The acute period of disease typically ends after 2 to 10 days. Once clinical signs of rabies appear, the disease is nearly always fatal, and treatment is typically supportive.
Disease prevention includes administration of both passive antibody, through an injection of human immune globulin and a round of injections with rabies vaccine.
Once a person begins to exhibit signs of the disease, survival is rare. To date less than 10 documented cases of human survival from clinical rabies have been reported and only two have not had a history of pre- or postexposure prophylaxis.
How is rabies transmitted?
All species of mammals are susceptible to rabies virus infection, but only a few species are important as reservoirs for the disease. In the United States, distinct strains of rabies virus have been identified in raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes. Several species of insectivorous bats are also reservoirs for strains of the rabies virus.
Transmission of rabies virus usually begins when infected saliva of a host is passed to an uninfected animal. The most common mode of rabies virus transmission is through the bite and virus-containing saliva of an infected host. Though transmission has been rarely documented via other routes such as contamination of mucous membranes (i.e., eyes, nose, mouth), aerosol transmission, and corneal and organ transplantations.
How is rabies diagnosed?
In animals, rabies is diagnosed using the direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) test, which looks for the presence of rabies virus antigens in brain tissue. In humans, several tests are required.
Rapid and accurate laboratory diagnosis of rabies in humans and other animals is essential for timely administration of postexposure prophylaxis. Within a few hours, a diagnostic laboratory can determine whether or not an animal is rabid and inform the responsible medical personnel. The laboratory results may save a patient from unnecessary physical and psychological trauma, and financial burdens, if the animal is not rabid.
In addition, laboratory identification of positive rabies cases may aid in defining current epidemiologic patterns of disease and provide appropriate information for the development of rabies control programs.
The nature of rabies disease dictates that laboratory tests be standardized, rapid, sensitive, specific, economical, and reliable.
When should I seek medical attention?
The rabies virus is transmitted through saliva or brain/nervous system tissue. You can only get rabies by coming in contact with these specific bodily excretions and tissues.
It's important to remember that rabies is a medical urgency but not an emergency. Decisions should not be delayed.
Wash any wounds immediately. One of the most effective ways to decrease the chance for infection is to wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water.
See your doctor for attention for any trauma due to an animal attack before considering the need for rabies vaccination.
Your doctor, possibly in consultation with your state or local health department, will decide if you need a rabies vaccination. Decisions to start vaccination, known as postexposure prophylaxis (PEP), will be based on your type of exposure and the animal you were exposed to, as well as laboratory and surveillance information for the geographic area where the exposure occurred.
In the United States, postexposure prophylaxis consists of a regimen of one dose of immune globulin and four doses of rabies vaccine over a 14-day period. Rabies immune globulin and the first dose of rabies vaccine should be given by your health care provider as soon as possible after exposure. Additional doses or rabies vaccine should be given on days 3, 7, and 14 after the first vaccination. Current vaccines are relatively painless and are given in your arm, like a flu or tetanus vaccine.
What care will I receive?
Wound care. Regardless of the risk of rabies, bite wounds can cause serious injury such as nerve or tendon laceration and local and system infection. Your doctor will determine the best way to care for your wound, and will also consider how to treat the wound for the best possible cosmetic results.
For many types of bite wounds, immediate gentle irrigation with water or a dilute water povidone-iodine solution has been shown to markedly decrease the risk of bacterial infection.
Wound cleansing is especially important in rabies prevention since, in animal studies, thorough wound cleansing alone without other postexposure prophylaxis has been shown to markedly reduce the likelihood of rabies.
You should receive a tetanus shot if you have not been immunized in ten years. Decisions regarding the use of antibiotics, and primary wound closure should be decided together with your doctor.
Rabies postexposure vaccinations. For people who have never been vaccinated against rabies previously, postexposure anti-rabies vaccination should always include administration of both passive antibody and vaccine.
The combination of human rabies immune globulin (HRIG) and vaccine is recommended for both bite and nonbite exposures, regardless of the interval between exposure and initiation of treatment.
People who have been previously vaccinated or are receiving preexposure vaccination for rabies should receive only vaccine.
Adverse reactions to rabies vaccine and immune globulin are not common. Newer vaccines in use today cause fewer adverse reactions than previously available vaccines. Mild, local reactions to the rabies vaccine, such as pain, redness, swelling, or itching at the injection site, have been reported. Rarely, symptoms such as headache, nausea, abdominal pain, muscle aches, and dizziness have been reported. Local pain and low-grade fever may follow injection of rabies immune globulin.
The vaccine should be given at recommended intervals for best results. Talk to your with your doctor or state or local public health officials if you will not be able to have shot at the recommended interval. Rabies prevention is a serious matter and changes should not be made in the schedule of doses.
People cannot transmit rabies to other people unless they themselves are sick with rabies. The prophylaxis you are receiving will protect you from developing rabies, and therefore you cannot expose other people to rabies. You should continue to participate in your normal activities.
What is the risk for my pet?
Any animal bitten or scratched by either a wild, carnivorous mammal or a bat that is not available for testing should be regarded as having been exposed to rabies.
Unvaccinated dogs, cats, and ferrets exposed to a rabid animal should be euthanized immediately. If the owner is unwilling to have this done, the animal should be placed in strict isolation for 6 months and vaccinated 1 month before being released.
Animals with expired vaccinations need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Dogs and cats that are currently vaccinated are kept under observation for 45 days.
Small mammals such as squirrels, rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, chipmunks, rabbits, and hares are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States. Bites by these animals are usually not considered a risk of rabies unless the animal was sick or behaving in any unusual manner and rabies is widespread in your area.
However, from 1985 through 1994, woodchucks accounted for 86% of the 368 cases of rabies among rodents reported to CDC. Woodchucks or groundhogs (Marmota monax) are the only rodents that may be frequently submitted to state health department because of a suspicion of rabies. In all cases involving rodents, the state or local health department should be consulted before a decision is made to initiate postexposure prophylaxis (PEP).
Is there rabies in my area?
Each state collects specific information about rabies, and is the best source for information on rabies in your area. In addition, the CDC publishes rabies surveillance data every year for the United States. The report, entitled Rabies Surveillance in the United States, contains information about the number of cases of rabies reported to CDC during the year, the animals reported rabid, maps showing where cases were reported for wild and domestic animals, and distribution maps showing outbreaks of rabies associated with specific animals.
This information was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies basics. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/index.html. Last accessed December 31, 2017.
The information in this document is for general educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for personalized professional advice. Although the information was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, MedLink Corporation, its representatives, and the providers of the information do not guarantee its accuracy and disclaim responsibility for adverse consequences resulting from its use. For further information, consult a physician and the organization referred to herein.