What is plague?

Plague is a potentially deadly disease caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis. Plague is found in rodents in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Examples of rodents that carry plague are rats, prairie dogs, and squirrels. In the United States, plague is found in dry, rural areas. New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and California have reported rodents with plague.

How do people get plague?

People can get plague from fleas that jump off an infected rodent and bite them. You can also get plague if you touch an animal or another person who has plague. It may also be spread through the air when someone coughs or sneezes.

What are the signs and symptoms of plague?

Symptoms begin 2 to 8 days after infection with the bacteria. You may have the following:

  • Sudden fever, chills, and weakness

  • Swollen, red, and extremely painful lymph nodes in your armpits, neck, or groin area. These are called bubos. They may be may be ½ inch to 4 inches (1 to 10 cm) across. Rarely, the bubo opens up and pus comes out.

  • Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

  • Unexplained bleeding

  • Purple skin patches that turn black

  • Chest pain, painful breathing, and coughing up blood

How is plague diagnosed?

Tell your caregiver if you have traveled in the past 10 days. Tell him if you have had contact with a person or animal who may have plague. Your caregiver will take a sample of blood, mucus from your lungs, or tissue from a bubo. He will use this to culture (grow the bacteria) and find out if you have plague. Plague grows so slowly in a culture that an infected person can die before the diagnosis is made. Your caregiver must make a diagnosis quickly, so he might diagnosis you with plague if:

  • In the past 10 days, you have been in an area where rodents are known to have plague.

  • You are very sick, much sicker than would be expected with pneumonia or the flu.

What are the risks of plague?

If you have been exposed to plague, seek medical care immediately. Antibiotics can prevent you from getting plague. If you already have plague and are in the very early stages, plague can often be cured. Without treatment, plague is life-threatening.

Where can I get more information about plague?

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    1600 Clifton Road
    Atlanta , GA 30333
    Phone: 1- 404 - 6393311
    Phone: 1- 800 - 3113435
    Web Address:

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have been exposed to plague.

  • You have a sudden fever with chills and weakness.

  • You develop swollen, red, and extremely painful lymph nodes in your armpits, neck, or groin area.

  • You have abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

  • You have unexplained bleeding.

  • You have purple skin patches that turn black.

  • You have chest pain, painful breathing, and you are coughing up blood.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

Learn more about Plague