What are the symptoms of rabies in humans?
The early symptoms of rabies include:
- a high temperature (fever)
- a headache
- a general feeling of unwellness (malaise)
- feeling tired and weak
- feeling anxious
- pain or discomfort where you’ve been bitten
- nausea and vomiting
Advanced symptoms of rabies include:
- confusion and excitability
- aggressive behaviour
- excessive saliva production, sometimes frothing at the mouth
- muscle spasms, especially in the throat
- fear of water (hydrophobia)
- difficulty swallowing and breathing
- inability to move legs (partial paralysis)
How long do the symptoms of rabies take to appear?
The symptoms of rabies usually appear between 3 to 12 weeks after being exposed to the virus. However in some cases, the incubation period for rabies can vary from less than a week to over 2 years after exposure.
Even if you have been vaccinated against rabies, if you are bitten or scratched by an animal then you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
How are the symptoms of rabies treated?
Unfortunately there is currently no cure for rabies. Once symptoms develop, rabies is fatal in almost all cases. However, the symptoms of rabies can be prevented if treatment is given immediately after being exposed to the virus, before you develop a full infection. This is known as “post-exposure treatment” (PET).
Post-exposure rabies treatment – if you are assessed by a medical professional and they think that there is a risk that you have been exposed to the rabies virus, then they will start your post-exposure rabies treatment. The treatment provided will be based on your vaccination history, the country in which you were exposed to the virus, and the animal which may have transmitted it.
If you have completed a full course of the rabies vaccination and have been fully immunised, then usually no treatment is required. If you were potentially exposed to the virus in a country that has a high risk of rabies, then you may receive two additional doses of the rabies vaccine, a few days apart, to boost your immunity.
If you have not completed a full course of the rabies vaccine, and are either not immune or only partially immune, then you may require an additional four doses of the rabies vaccine, over the course of a month, to boost your immune system. If you are not immune and are at a high-risk of developing rabies, you may also receive a human rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG) shot. HRIG is a medication made from the blood plasma of humans with high levels of antibodies against the rabies virus, and helps to boost the immune system to fight off the virus before it can infect you.
If you have a weakened immune system, which can be caused by diseases such as HIV, or as a result of certain medications, and there is a high risk of developing rabies, then it may be necessary to get five doses of the rabies vaccine, and a HRIG shot.
How do I recognise rabies symptoms in animals?
The first sign of rabies in animals is a change in their behaviour, which you may only be able to tell if you are already familiar with the animal. Animals that are typically docile may become restless and aggressive, and bite or snap at other animals and humans. Infected animals may also lick and bite the site of infection, if it was caused by a bite or a scratch, as it could be a source of irritation or pain. The virus can also cause hypersensitivity to noise and light, so infected animals may try and stay in dark and quiet places.
As the infection progresses, the animal may become more aggressive, begin to excessively produce saliva, and froth at the mouth. These are the tell-tale signs of rabies in animals, which should be recognisable even in animals you are not familiar with. Some animals may also start to chew and eat unusual things, such as dirt and stones. This kind of rabies is known as furious rabies.
There is another form of rabies called paralytic rabies, which is more common in dogs. In these cases the animal will develop paralysis, which will make it seem tired and weak. The paralysis will also make it more difficult for the animal to swallow, causing it to drool.
How can I protect myself against rabies?
Stay away from animals in high-risk countries – while there is a very low chance of getting infected with rabies from an animal bite or scratch in the UK, there is a higher risk of contracting rabies in other countries - especially some regions of Africa and Asia. If you are travelling to high-risk countries, it is best to avoid touching any animals, including domesticated pets and wild animals. You can find out more information on the risk-level of rabies in each country here.
Wash any animal wounds – if you are bitten or scratched by an animal, clean the wound as soon as you can with soap and water, and use an iodine or alcohol-based disinfectant to treat the wound if possible. This reduces the chance that the virus will be able to get into the wound and cause an infection. After cleaning the wound, seek medical attention immediately.
Get the rabies vaccine – the rabies vaccine is an effective form of protection against contracting rabies, and works by exposing your immune system to an inactivated form of the virus. This means that your immune system can develop the antibodies necessary to fight off the virus without being at risk of becoming infected by it. If you are travelling to a country that has a medium or high risk of rabies, it is recommended that you get the vaccine to help protect yourself against a possible infection. You can get the rabies vaccine at any Superdrug Health Clinic in the UK.