What is Rabies?

Rabies is a rare but serious disease and preventable viral disease most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. The rabies virus infects the central nervous system of mammals, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. The vast majority of rabies cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year occur in wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes, although any mammal can get rabies. The most common way to get rabies is through bat bites (in the U.S.) or dog bites (in Asia and Africa).

The Rabies Virus

Rabies virus belongs to the order Mononegavirales, viruses with a nonsegmented, negative-stranded RNA genomes. Within this group, viruses with a distinct “bullet” shape are classified in the Rhabdoviridae family, which includes at least three genera of animal viruses, Lyssavirus, Ephemerovirus, and Vesiculovirus. The genus Lyssavirus includes rabies virus, Lagos bat, Mokola virus, Duvenhage virus, European bat virus 1 & 2 and Australian bat virus.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Rabies?

The first symptoms of rabies can appear from a few days to more than a year after the bite happens.

  • At first, there’s a tingling, prickling, or itching feeling around the bite area. A person also might have flu-like symptoms such as a fever, headache, muscle aches, loss of appetite, nausea, and tiredness.
  • After a few days, neurological symptoms develop, including:
  • Irritability or aggressiveness
  • Excessive movements or agitation
  • Confusion, bizarre or strange thoughts, or hallucinations
  • Muscle spasms and unusual postures
  • Seizures (convulsions)
  • Weakness or paralysis (when a person cannot move some part of the body)
  • Extreme sensitivity to bright lights, sounds, or touch
  • Someone with rabies can produce a lot of saliva (spit), and muscle spasms in their throat might make it hard to swallow. This causes the “foaming at the mouth” effect that has long been associated with rabies infection. It also leads to a fear of choking or what seems like a “fear of water,” another well-known rabies sign.

What Causes Rabies?

Rabies is caused by the rabies virus. Infected animals have the virus in their saliva. The virus enters the body through broken skin or the eyes, nose, or mouth, and travels through nerves to the brain. There it multiplies and causes inflammation and damage. Bites from a wild infected animal cause most U.S. rabies cases. Raccoons are the most common carriers, but bats are most likely to infect people. Skunks and foxes also can be infected, and a few cases have been reported in wolves, coyotes, bobcats, and ferrets. Small rodents such as hamsters, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and rabbits are rarely infected. Widespread animal vaccination has made transmission from dogs to people rare in the U.S. In the rest of the world, exposure to rabid dogs is the most common cause of transmission to humans.

Is Rabies Contagious?

Rabies is not contagious from person to person. The virus most often spreads through bites from an infected animal. But it can also spread if the animal’s saliva (spit) gets directly into a person’s eyes, nose, mouth, or an open wound (such as a scratch or a scrape).

How Is Exposure to Rabies Prevented?

To reduce the chances of rabies exposure:

Vaccinate your pets.

Report stray animals to your local health authorities or animal-control officer.

Remind kids not to touch or feed stray cats or dogs wandering in the neighborhood or elsewhere.

Teach kids to stay away from wild animals such as bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes.

September 28 is World Rabies Day, a global health observance started in 2007 to raise awareness about the world’s deadliest infectious disease and bring together partners to enhance prevention and control efforts worldwide.

Thuesday, September 28, 2023


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