What is Tularemia?

Tularemia (rabbit fever, deer fly fever) is an uncommon life-threatening bacterial infection that spreads to humans from dead or live mammals through various forms of contact.

Wild and domestic rodents, birds, lambs, cats, dogs and insects can be carriers of the disease. It can attack the lymph nodes, skin, lungs and eyes. The bacterium can survive in water and dirt, and it can also become airborne. Although it does not spread from human to human, it is highly transmittable and infects people across the globe.

What are the Symptoms of Tularemia?

After exposure it typically takes between three and five days for symptoms to appear. However, it can take as long as two weeks. Symptoms of tularemia depend on the method of contraction.

Symptoms caused by a bite or through ulcerated skin (ulceroglandular tularemia) may include:

When tularemia infects the eyes it is referred to as oculoglandular. Symptoms may include:

  • Light sensitivity
  • Red eyes
  • Painful eyes
  • Swollen eyes
  • Eye excretions
  • Sore on inner eyelid(s)

Oropharyngeal tularemia is contracted via tainted undercooked meat and water. Symptoms may include:

  • Sore throat
  • Temperature
  • Mouth sores
  • Loose stools
  • Vomiting
  • Swollen tonsils
  • Swollen lymph glands in the neck

Pneumonic tularemia is a serious form of the disease. Symptoms may include:

  • Unproductive cough
  • Chest pain
  • Breathing problems

Typhoidal tularemia is an uncommon but very serious. Symptoms may include:

  • Extreme lethargy
  • High temperature
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Swollen liver
  • Swollen spleen
  • Pneumonia

Tularemia Causes

Francisella tularensis is the primary causative agent that is responsible for Tularemia (also known as rabbit or deer fly fever).

F. tularensis is a small nonsporulating aerobic bacillus that is also significantly characterized as being both nonmotile and pleomorphic in nature. The problems begin to occur if the Francisella tularensis organism is able to enter the body, and it does so most often through four primary routes.

The first of these is the ingestion of contaminated food or water. Secondly, infected arthropod vectors including ticks, deer flies, and fleas are able to pass it to humans through their bites. Inhalation can be a point of entry that can happen when an infected dead animal is mowed over for example.

Finally, human direct contact with any infected material or tissue can be a cause.

How is Tularemia Treated?

Antibiotic medication is administered in the treatment of tularemia and typically lasts from 10 days. The most commonly used antibiotics to fight tularemia are gentamicin or streptomycin.

It may also include medication to treat and relieve symptoms.

Tularemia Prevention

Anyone who needs, for their profession or hobby, to be around possibly infected animals should take precautions. This group includes butchers, hunters, farmers and fur handlers and is particularly relevant during the winter months. It is important to wear the proper skin protection (such as gloves) during activities such as wild rabbit skinning.

Also, insect repellent with DEET can help people to avoid the bites of virulent ticks or other arthropods in the endemic regions. All meat and drinking water should be properly prepared so as to avoid the less common route of transmission which is through undercooked or contaminated fare.

There have been no known cases of transmission of Tularemia from a human to another human. However, it has been realized that F. tularensis can be a potent threat as a virulent biological agent if weaponized by a capable terrorist or terrorist group. This is a newer and emerging threat which will likely continue to be more of a reality as time progresses.

Last Reviewed:
October 11, 2016
Last Updated:
September 10, 2017