What is it?
Rabies is a deadly virus spread to people from the saliva of infected animals. The rabies virus is usually transmitted through a bite.
Animals most likely to transmit rabies in the United States include bats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks. In developing countries of Africa and Southeast Asia, stray dogs are the most likely to spread rabies to people.
Once a person begins showing signs and symptoms of rabies, the disease is nearly always fatal. For that reason, vaccines to stop the rabies virus from infecting the body are given to anyone who may have a risk of contracting rabies.
Rabies doesn't cause any signs or symptoms until late in the disease, often just days before death. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Excessive salivation
- Fear of water (hydrophobia) because of the difficulty in swallowing
- Partial paralysis
Rabies infection is caused by the rabies virus. The virus is spread through the saliva of infected animals. Infected animals can spread the virus by biting another animal or person. In rare cases, rabies can be spread when infected saliva gets into an open wound or the mucous membranes, such as the mouth or eyes. This could occur if an infected animal were to lick an open cut on your skin.
Animals that can transmit the rabies virus
Any mammal can transmit the rabies virus. The animals most likely to transmit the rabies virus to people include:
Pets and farm animals
Factors that can increase your risk of rabies include:
- Traveling or living in developing countries where rabies is more common, including countries in Africa and Southeast Asia
- Activities that are likely to put you in contact with wild animals that may have rabies, such as exploring caves where bats live or camping without taking precautions to keep wild animals away from your campsite
- Working in a laboratory with the rabies virus
- Wounds to the head or neck, which may help the rabies virus travel to your brain more quickly
At the time a rabid animal bites you, there's no way to know whether the animal has transmitted the rabies virus to you. For this reason, treatment to prevent the rabies virus from infecting your body is recommended if doctors think there's a chance you have been exposed to the virus.
Blood and tissue tests are used to diagnose rabies in people who have signs and symptoms of the infection.