Q Fever

What is Q Fever?

Q Fever is a mild infection that produces flu-like symptoms, but is caused by the bacteria Coxiella burnetii rather than a virus. Humans get the disease from animals, including cows, sheep and goats. The bacteria is spread through the animals’ urine, feces and other body fluids. You can get it through direct contact or, most commonly, through breathing in dust that is contaminated.

People who work on farms or who have other careers with animals are more likely to get Q fever. Many people never show any symptoms, but in rare severe cases, complications can result that could cause serious illness.

Pregnant women are at increased risk of miscarriage if they contract Q fever.

What are the Symptoms of Q Fever?

Q fever can produce symptoms including a high fever, headache and muscle aches, chills or sweats, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea and pain in the abdomen and chest. You may have sensitivity to light.

In rare cases, Q fever can lead to complications including pneumonia, liver inflammation, heart inflammation and central nervous system issues.

Some patients get recurring cases of Q fever. The coxiella burnetii bacteria can linger in a human host and pop back up after a period of several weeks to three years. About 10 to 25 percent of sufferers get a post-Q fever fatigue syndrome that includes symptoms of fatigue and headaches.

Q fever Causes

Q fever, also known as query fever, is an infection caused by the Coxiella burneii bacteria. This bacterium is very commonly found in sheep, cattle, and goats around the world. The bacteria can be found in the urine, feces, milk, and birthing fluids (placenta, amniotic fluid) of these animals. The bacteria are generally transmitted to humans as these substances dry and create dust. The dust is then breathed in by the humans and the infection develops. There have been some cases recorded of infections caused by drinking unpasteurized milk; however, these cases are generally considered to be very rare and are not a great concern.

How is Q Fever Treated?

If you develop Q fever, your doctor will prescribe doxycycline, an antibiotic. For most illnesses, taking the antibiotic for two to three weeks is sufficient, but people who get a more severe or ongoing type of the disease may need to have longer runs of medications.

The biggest complication of Q fever, endocarditis, can damage the heart. You may need to have a replacement heart valve if the disease progresses in this way.

Q fever Prevention

Fortunately, Q fever is not a great concern for the vast majority of the population. A person has to have relatively close contact with animals to even stand a chance of contracting the disease.

For those who work directly with animals there is a risk. There are, however, steps that can be taken to prevent exposure.

Birthing materials contain the highest concentrations of the bacteria. As such, it is vitally important to insure they are properly disposed of as soon as possible. All exposed areas should also be properly disinfected and decontaminated. Always ensure your hands are washed properly after working with livestock.

A good way to prevent Q fever in humans is to prevent outbreaks in livestock. Livestock should be closely monitored and regularly tested for Q fever. If there are infected animals they should be immediately quarantined and treated. These animals, and the area they live, should be avoided when possible and proper protective equipment should be worn when handling them.

There is a vaccine available in Australia if the risk of infection is high. However, it is not currently available in the United States.

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Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
December 19, 2017