Weil’s Syndrome (Leptospirosis)

What is Weil’s Syndrome?

Weil’s syndrome is an infection caused by corkscrew shaped bacteria called Leptospira.  At least 75% of people infected with Weil’s syndrome are male. The principal source of infection in humans is the rat but may also include cattle, dogs, pigs, and other animals.

The disease is contracted via contact with contaminated water or soil, or via contact with tissues or urine of infected animals.  Those at greater risk for contracting Weil’s syndrome include sewage workers, farmers, rodent control workers, veterinarians, and other jobs involving animals.

What are the Symptoms of Weil’s Syndrome?

The onset of symptoms is abrupt and may include headaches, pain in muscles and abdomen, disturbances in consciousness, lack of appetite, a stiff neck, vomiting, nausea, chills, and fever.

Expectoration of blood stained sputum (hemoptysis), coughing, prostration, nosebleed (epistaxis), jaundice, bleeding in muscles, visceral organs, and gastrointestinal tract may be extensive.  The individual may also have great difficulty breathing due to dangerously low levels of oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia). The infection may cause no symptoms in some individuals.

Weil’s Syndrome Causes

Weil’s Syndrome is caused by an infection of bacteria called Leptospira icterohemorrhagiae, or similar bacteria such as L. canicola or L. pomona. Humans are usually infected when they come into contact with tissues or urine from an infected animal.

The infection is able to enter the body via our mucous membranes or abrasions on the skin. This usually occurs when we have contact with fresh water which might be contaminated with urine from cattle or rats. Those who swim in open fresh waters, or take part in activities such as water skiing, kayaking and fishing are most at risk of contracting the infection.

How is Weil’s Syndrome Treated?

The intravenous administration of antibiotics may prove effective if started in the first two or three days after the manifestation of symptoms. Some patients with the condition were treated successfully with a combination of antibiotics and peritoneal dialysis.

Intravenous penicillin G is the drug chosen for severely ill patients. Oral ampicillin, amoxicillin, and doxycycline are effective in mild-to-moderate cases.

Weil’s Syndrome Prevention

To avoid Weil’s Syndrome, you should take great care when considering activities around fresh water. This includes lakes, rivers and ponds. Rats can occur almost anywhere, which can make it difficult to assess whether a body of water could be contaminated. Stagnant water tends to be most at risk, so areas with rapid river flow or waterfalls may be slightly safer.

If you plan on swimming, it is usually safer to do so in the sea, where the Leptospiro bacteria can’t survive. Alternatively, look for bodies of water that are treated by environment agencies to reduce the risk of infection.

Any open wounds, even small, minor scrapes to the skin, should be carefully covered with waterproof dressings before you spend any time near the edge of water which could be contaminated. If partaking in sports such as kayaking, where water could splash into the face, ensure that scratches, cuts or open blemishes are covered.

The infection cannot be contracted by swallowing contaminated water, but other bacteria could live in the water which might be harmful if ingested. To avoid Weil’s Syndrome in particular, be careful not to accidentally inhale water, since it can pass through the mucous membrane of the nasal lining.

Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
October 23, 2017
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