Rabies

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What is rabies?

Rabies is a widespread infection of warm-blooded animals. It is caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system. In North America rabies occurs primarily in skunks, foxes, and coyotes. In some areas these wild animals infect domestic cats, dogs, and livestock. In the U.S., cats are more likely than dogs to be rabid. As a general rule, rabies is rare in rodents (beavers, chipmunks and squirrels, rats and mice, muskrats, hamsters, gerbils, porcupines and guinea pigs). Rabies is also rare in rabbits.

How is rabies spread?

Rabies virus enters the body through a cut or scratch or through mucous membranes (such as the lining of the mouth and eyes). From there it travels to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Once the infection is established in the brain, the virus travels down the nerves from the brain and multiplies in many different organs. The salivary glands are the organs most important in the spread of rabies from one animal to another. When an infected animal bites another animal the rabies virus is transmitted in the infected animal’s saliva. Scratches by claws of rabid animals are dangerous because animals lick their claws. Saliva applied to a mucous membrane such as the lining of an eyelid can also be dangerous. Bats can also transmit rabies. Bat excreta contain enough rabies virus that people who enter bat-infested cave can "catch" rabies by breathing in the aerosols created by bats.

Who is at risk for infection?

Anyone who comes into contact with possibly infected animals (especially wild animals) is at risk for infection.

Is rabies infection serious?

Once the symptoms of rabies develop, it is 100% fatal. Patients develop difficulty swallowing (hence the term foaming at the mouth due to inability to swallow saliva), and even the sight of water may terrify the patient (hence the term hydrophobic fear of water). Some patients become agitated and disoriented, while others become paralyzed. Patients either die during this stage of the illness or go into a coma and die from further complications.

How can I protect myself?

Rabies in humans can be prevented either by eliminating exposures to rabid animals or by providing exposed persons with prompt local treatment of wounds combined with appropriate passive and active immunization. Animals should be vaccinated against the virus.

Pre-exposure vaccination may be recommended for veterinarians and researchers at risk of being bitten by wild animals (such as field researchers).

What are the signs of rabies infection?

The incubation period in humans ranges from 5 days to more than 1 year, with 2 months being the average incubation period. Since the disease is fatal once symptoms develop, it is crucial to seek medical attention if you believe you have been exposed to the rabies virus. After the incubation period, there is a period of vague symptoms lasting from 2-10 days. The patient may have a fever, headache, malaise (general sick feeling), decreased appetite and vomiting. There may also be pain, itching, or numbness and tingling at the site of the wound. More serious symptoms (mentioned earlier) develop after this stage.

What do I do if an exposure or injury occurs?

Exposure to aerosols, bites or scratches involving animals or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from animals require immediate first aid and medical attention. Notify your supervisor! Then, contact the University Police Department at 593-2611 or dial 911.

This page was last updated on: October 12, 2015