Rabies exposure

Definition

Rabies is a viral infection that is usually spread by an animal bite and also can be spread with no bite and saliva contact with broken skin. The virus makes its way from the wound to your brain where it causes swelling and inflammation. If left untreated, rabies usually causes death. 

Caution around wild animals

Historically in the United States, human rabies typically came from a dog bite, but recently, because of widespread animal vaccination, the leading cause has been contact with bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. In developing countries, dog bites remain the biggest cause of rabies.

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms for rabies can take anywhere from 10 days to seven years to appear, though the average incubation period is from 3 to 12 weeks.

An older name for rabies is hydrophobia, or “fear of water,” largely because victims have difficulty swallowing and may become panicked when they can’t quench their thirst because of their fear of choking.

Other symptoms of rabies include:

  • General weakness or discomfort
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Itching sensation at the site of the bite
  • Cerebral dysfunction
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Delirium
  • Hallucinations

How is rabies diagnosed?

Usually providers will confirm a rabies infection by examining tissue from the animal that caused the bite and by testing tissue from the victim.

A test called immunofluorescence checks the animal’s brain tissue for the presence of the rabies virus. Immunofluorescence also can be used to test a skin sample from the victim. Other tests include checking for the rabies virus in the victim’s saliva or spinal fluid.

When should I seek medical attention?

If you are bitten by an animal, go to the emergency room or call 911. Remember to try and gather as much information about the animal as you can. If you find a dead bat in your home and are uncertain about a possible exposure, bring the bat into University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics and it can be tested. The UI Hospitals & Clinics Emergency Department has a protocol for collecting and testing these specimens. These tests can sometimes avoid the need for a costly series of immunizations. 

Treatment

If you are bitten, clean the wound with soap and water, then seek medical help. Your healthcare provider will clean the wound again and remove any foreign objects that may have gotten inside of it.

You will be given a series of preventive vaccines if there is a risk of rabies. Generally, the vaccine includes five doses given over a period of four weeks. You also may receive human rabies immunoglobulin on the same day you were bitten.

If you are bitten or exposed to wild animal saliva, see a doctor right away. These early treatments are most effective if provided within the first 10 to 14 days.

Complications

If rabies is left untreated it can lead to coma or death.

It’s a rare possibility for an individual to have an allergic reaction to the rabies vaccine.

Prevention

Rabies is a preventable disease. To reduce your risk of being bitten and becoming infected follow these tips:

  • Avoid contact with wild animals and animals you do not know.
  • Get vaccinated if you work in a high-risk occupation or travel to countries with a risk of rabies.
  • Vaccinate your pets.
  • Make sure your pet doesn’t come in contact with any wild animals.
  • Follow quarantine regulations on importing dogs and other mammals.
Last reviewed: 
February 2018
Alternative Names: 
Hydrophobia

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