What Is Leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a rare bacterial infection we get from animals. It’s spread through their urine, especially from dogs, rodents, and farm animals. They may not have any symptoms, but they can be carriers.

In most cases, leptospirosis is unpleasant but not life-threatening, like a case of the flu. It rarely lasts more than a week. But about 10% of the time, when you have a severe form of leptospirosis, you’ll get better, but then get sick again. This is called Weil’s disease and it can cause much more serious issues, like chest pain and swollen arms and legs. It often requires hospitalization.

How Do I Get It?

Leptospirosis is caused by a bacterium called Leptospira interrogans. The organism is carried by many animals and lives in their kidneys. It ends up in soil and water through their urine.

If you’re around soil or water where an infected animal has peed, the germ can invade your body through breaks in your skin, like scratches, open wounds, or dry areas. It can also enter through your nose, mouth, or genitals. It’s hard to get it from another human, though it can be passed through sex or breastfeeding.

You’re at risk if you spend a lot of time around animals or in the outdoors. You’re more likely to be exposed to it if you have one of these jobs:

  • Farmer
  • Veterinarian
  • Underground worker (you work in a sewer or a mine)
  • Slaughterhouse worker
  • Military personnel

Also, if you raft, swim, or camp near affected lakes and rivers, you could get the disease.

Leptospirosis is more often found in warm climates. And although the bacteria live all over the world, it’s especially common in Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.

Symptoms

You usually start showing signs of leptospirosis within 2 weeks, though in some cases, symptoms may not show up for a month or not at all.

When the disease does hit, it hits fast. You’ll get a fever. It may spike to 104 F. Other typical symptoms include:

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Many of these symptoms are similar to other diseases, including the flu and meningitis, so it’s important to get tested.

To check for leptospirosis, your doctor does a simple blood test and examines the blood for antibodies. These are organisms your body produces to fight the bacteria. If you have had the disease in your system before, the blood test may give a false positive (or show antibodies from the previous infection). So your doctor will likely do a second test about a week later to make sure the results are correct.

Your doctor could order a DNA test. It’s more precise, but is more expensive and takes longer, and in many areas of the world, it’s not available yet.

Treatment and Prevention

Leptospirosis can be treated with antibiotics, including penicillin and doxycycline. Your doctor may also recommend ibuprofen for fever and muscle pain.

The disease should run its course in about a week.

But, you may have to go to the hospital if your infection is more severe. Symptoms may include kidney failure, meningitis, and lung problems. You may need to have antibiotics injected into your body, and in very serious cases, the infection could damage your organs.

Prevention is key. Here’s what you can do to keep yourself healthy:

Avoid contaminated water. If you’re in a developing country, don’t drink the water unless you’re sure it’s clean. But because leptospirosis can enter through other body openings, it’s also a good idea to avoid swimming, waterskiing, sailing, or fishing in freshwater areas. Saltwater is generally safe.

Keep away from infected animals, especially wild rats. Rats and other rodents are the main carriers of the bacteria. Even in the Western world, 20% of wild rats may have it. Be careful if you have to handle wild rats or come in contact with their habitats.

In the developed world, farm animals are usually vaccinated, so there’s much less risk. If an animal is ill, avoid bites and body fluids. The disease can’t be passed through the air like a cold or the flu.

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Be aware of your surroundings, especially when you travel. In countries with poor sanitation, leptospirosis is more common and may be hard to avoid. So, recognize the symptoms and seek help if you become ill.

Use disinfectant. Bleach, Lysol, acid solutions, and iodine are deadly to the bacteria. Keep them on hand to clean up.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on February 23, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Veterinary Medical Association: “Leptospirosis.”

World Health Organization: “Leptospirosis.”

CDC: “Leptospirosis: Infection,” “Leptospirosis: Risk of Exposure,” “Leptospirosis: Signs and Symptoms,” “Leptospirosis: Treatment.”

National Health Service (UK): “Leptospirosis -- Causes,” “Leptospirosis -- Treatment,” “Leptospirosis -- Symptoms.”

Government of South Australia SA Health: “Leptospirosis (Weil’s disease) -- including symptoms, treatment and prevention.”

Leptospirosis Information (leptospirosis.org): “Human testing methods -- a guide for patients.”

Leptospirosis Information (leptospirosis.org): “Agents known to kill leptospires,” “Preventing human infection -- an overview.”

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