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Rabies

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Oct 23, 2023.

Overview

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, stray dogs are the most likely to spread rabies to people.

Once a person begins showing signs and symptoms of rabies, the disease nearly always causes death. For this reason, anyone who may have a risk of contracting rabies should receive rabies vaccinations for protection.

Symptoms

The first symptoms of rabies may be very similar to those of the flu and may last for days.

Later signs and symptoms may include:

When to see a doctor

Seek immediate medical care if you're bitten by any animal, or exposed to an animal suspected of having rabies. Based on your injuries and the situation in which the exposure happened, you and your doctor can decide whether you should receive treatment to prevent rabies.

Even if you aren't sure whether you've been bitten, seek medical attention. For instance, a bat that flies into your room while you're sleeping may bite you without waking you. If you awake to find a bat in your room, assume you've been bitten. Also, if you find a bat near a person who can't report a bite, such as a small child or a person with a disability, assume that person has been bitten.

Causes

The rabies virus causes a rabies infection. The virus spreads through the saliva of infected animals. Infected animals can spread the virus by biting another animal or a 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 happen if an infected animal licked an open cut on your skin.

Animals that can transmit the rabies virus

Any mammal (an animal that suckles its young) can spread the rabies virus. The animals most likely to spread the rabies virus to people include:

Pets and farm animals

Wild animals

In very rare cases, the virus has been spread to tissue and organ transplant recipients from an infected organ.

Risk factors

Factors that can increase your risk of rabies include:

Prevention

To reduce your risk of coming in contact with rabid animals:

If you work as a veterinarian or work in a lab with the rabies virus, get the rabies vaccine.

Diagnosis

At the time a potentially rabid animal bites you, there's no way to know whether the animal has transmitted the rabies virus to you. It's common not to find bite marks, too. Your doctor may order many tests to detect the rabies virus, but they may need to be repeated later to confirm whether you're carrying the virus. Your doctor will likely recommend treatment as soon as possible to prevent the rabies virus from infecting your body if there's a chance you may have been exposed to the rabies virus.

Treatment

Once a rabies infection is established, there's no effective treatment. Though a small number of people have survived rabies, the disease usually causes death. For that reason, if you think you've been exposed to rabies, you must get a series of shots to prevent the infection from taking hold.

Treatment for people bitten by animals with rabies

If you've been bitten by an animal that is known to have rabies, you'll receive a series of shots to prevent the rabies virus from infecting you. If the animal that bit you can't be found, it may be safest to assume that the animal has rabies. But this will depend on several factors, such as the type of animal and the situation in which the bite occurred.

Rabies shots include:

Determining whether the animal that bit you has rabies

In some cases, it's possible to determine whether the animal that bit you has rabies before beginning the series of rabies shots. That way, if it's determined the animal is healthy, you won't need the shots.

Procedures for determining whether an animal has rabies vary by situation. For instance:

Preparing for your appointment

If an animal bites you, seek medical attention for the wound. Also tell the doctor about the circumstances of your injury. The doctor will ask:

What you can do in the meantime

Wash your wound gently and thoroughly with soap and generous amounts of water. This may help wash away the virus.

If the animal that bit you can be contained or captured without causing more injury, do so. Do not kill the animal with a blow or a shot to the head, as the resulting injuries may make it difficult to perform laboratory tests to determine whether the animal has rabies.

Tell your doctor that you have captured the animal that bit you. Your doctor may then contact the local health department to determine what to do with the animal.

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