What Is Rabies?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 10, 2022

Rabies is a virus that attacks the central nervous system. It’s found only in mammals.

Human cases of the virus are extremely rare in the United States, but if it’s not treated before symptoms appear, it’s deadly. Rabies has the highest mortality rate -- 99.9% -- of any disease on earth. The key is to get treated right away if you think you’ve been exposed to an animal that has rabies.

Normally, rabies is spread through a deep bite or scratch from an infected animal. In the United States, rabies is mostly found in wild animals like coyotes, raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. Most humans infected with the virus got it from bat exposure.  The best way to avoid getting rabies is to have your pets vaccinated.

Typically, there are no symptoms right away. Rabies can lay dormant in your body for 1 to 3 months. Doctors call this the “incubation period.” Symptoms will appear once the virus travels through your central nervous system and hits your brain.

The first sign that something is wrong is fever. You might feel generally tired or weak. You may also feel pain, tingling, or burning at the site of the wound. As the virus spreads through your central nervous system, you’ll develop other, more severe symptoms. They include:

In time, these symptoms give way to coma, heart or lung failure, and death.

Wash the wound right away with soap and water. That’s the best way to lower your chances of infection.
See a doctor as soon as possible. They’ll treat the wound and decide whether you need a rabies vaccination. If you’ve been exposed to rabies in the past few months, they’ll likely run a number of tests (saliva, blood, spinal fluid, skin, and hair) to check for the rabies virus or antibodies.

If your doctor suspects rabies, they’ll begin treatment with the rabies vaccine -- postexposure prophylaxis (PEP). The vaccine is always successful if it’s given immediately after exposure. You’ll get one dose of fast-acting rabies immune globulin, which will prevent you from getting infected by the virus. Then you’ll get four rabies vaccine shots over the next 14 days.

If you are pregnant, rabies shots are safe for you and your baby.

You might have an image in your head of a dog or raccoon acting aggressively and foaming at the mouth. But it’s not so easy to tell if you’re looking at a rabid animal. Most wild animals that have rabies actually act shy or timid. That’s not the way wild animals normally act, so steer clear.

Here are some common-sense rules for dealing with stray or wild animals:

  • Never pet a stray dog or cat.
  • If you see an animal acting strangely (it’s aggressive or tries to bite you), call your local animal control.
  • Never touch a wild animal -- even if it looks dead.

Show Sources


Global Alliance for Rabies Control: “What is Rabies? FAQs.”

CDC: “Rabies,” “How Do You Know If an Animal Has Rabies?”

Mayo Clinic: “Rabies.”

World Health Organization: “Rabies.”

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