Can Humans Get Rabies?

Rabies is a severe and dangerous infection in wild animals and can pose a risk to domestic animals and humans. Rabies will always exist in our environment due to reservoir species, but how does it impact human health?

Key takeaways:

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral zoonotic infection. Zoonotic infections can be transmitted from animals to humans or from humans to animals. Rabies is transmitted from a sick individual to a healthy individual by a bite, or sometimes a deep scratch, that contains infectious material, usually in the saliva. Many animals can get sick with rabies and present a variety of symptoms. However, some animal species can act as reservoirs for rabies. A reservoir species is a species that can carry a disease, in this case, the rabies virus, and not present with symptoms.

A reservoir can carry the disease, but is not sick with or visibly infectious. For rabies, common reservoir species in the United States include:

  • Bats
  • Skunks
  • Mongoose
  • Raccoons
  • Foxes

Symptoms of rabies

Rabies is a neurological disease that infects the central nervous system of patients. After a patient is exposed to the rabies virus, such as via the infected saliva of a rabid animal that has bitten them, symptoms can take anywhere from one week to one year to appear. However, symptoms typically begin to appear within two to three months.

Early rabies symptoms may also include tingling or burning sensations around the site of the bite wound. As the infection spreads in the body, symptoms become more obvious and more severe. Most rabies infections are of the “furious” type, and are characterized by severe symptoms in the final days.

Early symptomsFever, pain or malaise, and tingling at the wound site.
Severe symptomsInflammation and pain (spread from the wound site to the central nervous system), hyperactivity, fear of water or fresh air, and hallucinations.

Severe neurological symptoms of furious rabies typically last only a few days. However, if left untreated, all rabies is fatal to humans. Symptoms of rabies change as the disease becomes more pronounced.

Rabies treatment in humans

Rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease, and vaccines are recommended or required for most pets or domesticated animals, depending on the jurisdiction that they live in. Most humans do not receive a rabies vaccine unless under extenuating circumstances, such as in high-risk jobs. However, vaccines can be used for a treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis, where a patient who has known or potential exposure to rabies can be given the vaccine immediately, and it is still effective to prevent the onset of the disease. Scenarios where this post-exposure prophylaxis treatment may be used, include a bite from an animal that is known to be rabid, such as a sick dog, or a bite from an animal that is assumed to be infectious, such as a bat that was not captured and tested after biting a person.

Is rabies a threat in the United States?

The majority of rabies cases and deaths in the world occur in Africa and Asia. Additionally, the vast majority of rabies infections and deaths in humans are caused by dogs. However, as dogs are increasingly vaccinated and become less of a risk to humans in North America, other species present increased risks proportionally. Other potential sources of infection for humans are bites from wild animals, such as foxes, skunks, or bats. These bites are less common than dog bites and more often reported than a typical dog bite.

How to prevent rabies infection

Being mindful of rabies risks is an important step for reducing your risk of getting infected with rabies. These animal safety tips can help to reduce your risk:

  1. Report bites. If you’ve been bitten by a pet or wild animal that you don’t know, report the bite and seek immediate medical attention. Medical attention will typically involve thoroughly washing the wound site for at least 15 minutes with soap and running water and beginning post-exposure prophylactic treatments.
  2. Vaccinate. Follow the recommendations of your public health authorities and your pet’s veterinarian to ensure they are fully vaccinated and up to date on rabies vaccines.
  3. Monitor behavior. If you have a pet outside in the yard or on the trails at any time, monitor for strange or erratic behavior that suggests they are unwell. If you notice behavioral changes, speak to a veterinarian right away. For example, if your pet has an unexplained wound, speak to a veterinarian before waiting for potential behavior changes.
If you work in a high-risk job, follow the instructions of your local public health authority. Ask your employer for any necessary personal protective equipment and training that you might require to prevent rabies.

The overall risk of becoming infected with rabies is low. Furthermore, that risk is generally decreasing across North America, including in the United States, as access to pet vaccines is readily available, and their necessity is recognized more broadly. However, reservoir species like bats will always present some level of rabies risks for humans, as the reservoir of disease cannot be eliminated. Knowing what rabies is, how it is transmitted, and how to protect yourself will help to keep you and your loved ones safe.

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