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Rabies

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Topic Overview

What is rabies?

Rabies is an infection caused by a virus. It affects the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) of mammals, including humans. It is nearly always deadly if not treated before symptoms begin.

Animals that are infected with rabies—rabid animals—can spread the disease through their saliva or through brain tissue.

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It is rare for people in the United States or Canada to get rabies. It is more common in developing nations.

How do you get rabies?

People usually get rabies when a rabid animal bites them. People in the U.S. and Canada are most likely to get rabies from bats.1 People in many other countries are most likely to get rabies from dog bites.2, 3

Bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes are the animals most likely to have rabies in the U.S. and Canada. Small mammals such as mice and squirrels almost never have rabies.

Sometimes the rabies virus can spread to pets, such as dogs, cats, and ferrets. But household pets rarely get rabies, because most of them get rabies vaccines. Pets that stay indoors are very unlikely to get rabies.

It's possible to get rabies even when you don't see an animal bite. For example, bat bites or scratches may be so small that you don't notice them. If you or your children come in direct contact with a bat, or if you find a bat in a closed room with a sleeping person, call your doctor right away.

People also can get rabies by handling animals with rabies or inhaling the virus, but these cases are rare.

What are the symptoms?

Signs of rabies in animals may include drooling, foaming at the mouth, or paralysis. A pet with rabies also may behave differently than usual, such as acting shy when the pet usually is friendly. A wild animal with rabies may have no fear of humans.

Rabies in humans begins with symptoms such as fever, cough, or sore throat. Later, symptoms become more serious and can include restlessness, hallucinations, and seizures. The final stage is coma and death.

If you think you've been exposed to the rabies virus, it's very important to get medical care before symptoms begin. If symptoms appear, it's too late for a cure, and the infection will probably lead to death. The time from exposure to the virus until symptoms appear usually is 2 to 3 months. In rare cases, it may be shorter or much longer.

How is rabies treated?

The treatment for someone who has been exposed to rabies is a series of shots known as postexposure prophylaxis (PEP). These shots help the body's immune system destroy the disease in its early stages. Getting PEP before symptoms appear usually prevents infection, and you are likely to recover.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 27, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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