What are Rabies?

Rabies is a potentially deadly viral infection that affects the brain and central nervous system. Humans can contract rabies through the bite of an infected animal. The virus invades the nerve cells in the brain and is usually fatal unless you receive treatment immediately after exposure.

Due to vaccinations of domestic animals, rabies is not common in humans in the U.S. However, about 59,000 people around the world each year die from the disease.

If you are bit by an animal, you can quarantine and keep an eye on any domestic pets. Wild animals should, if possible, be caught and held for inspection by authorities. If there are signs of rabies, you may decide to get treatment immediately.

What are the Symptoms of Rabies?

Initial rabies symptoms resemble those of the flu. However, by the time humans show symptoms, the disease has progressed to where it may be fatal. These symptoms include fever, headache, nausea and vomiting, agitation or confusion, trouble swallowing, salivating, fear of water and hyperactivity or unusual activity. Eventually, partial paralysis occurs.

Rabies Causes

Rabies is a virus that is spread by animals that are infected. The saliva of an infected animal transmits the virus, so the primary cause of spread is an animal bite. Only mammals can become infected with the rabies virus. Domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, horses, goats, and cows can become infected, but the most common cause of infection in humans is a bite from a wild animal. Bats, wild rabbits, and foxes are common carriers of rabies.

How is Rabies Treated?

People who have been bitten by a wild animal or unvaccinated pet should contact their medical professionals to make sure they do not become ill. If you have been bitten, you will get a series of shots — four shots in 14 days — to prevent the infection from becoming established in your body.

Once symptoms begin, you may receive care to reduce your symptoms. This usually includes hospitalization. Some doctors have used what’s called the Milwaukee protocol, where patients are put into a coma and given antiviral drugs to combat the disease.

Rabies Prevention

To prevent becoming infected, avoid coming into physical contact with wild animals. If an animal in the wild is not displaying appropriate behavior and fear of humans, it is a sign that the animal may be infected. When spotting wild animals, take time to notice their behavior. If one comes towards you, avoid contact.

Keep domesticated animals vaccinated against rabies. Rabies vaccinations are highly reliable in preventing the virus, and they are an inexpensive way to prevent the infection, illness, and death of the pet. In addition, keep pets away from wild animals. If a rabies vaccination was ineffective or its time of protection has lapsed, the pet runs a risk of being bitten and infected with the virus.

If you do get a bite from any wild mammal, go to the ER for a series of rabies shots immediately. Never cover up a bite or assume that it didn’t transmit the virus simply because you don’t feel ill. It can take three months to see the first physical symptoms of rabies. Getting rabies shots will prevent the virus from becoming active, but the shots are only effective if they are administered before the symptoms of infection begin.

Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
December 05, 2017