Rabies is a deadly viral infection that causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord (encephalitis) in people and in animals.
The most common way to get rabies is to be bitten by an infected animal (bat, raccoon, skunk, fox, dog, cat)
The risk of an animal carrying the rabies virus depends on the type of animal, whether it is wild or a pet, and where it lives
If you were bitten by an animal, you should go to a doctor right away to see whether you need rabies shots
Symptoms usually appear 30 to 50 days after being bitten
If you get rabies shots right after being bitten, you almost never get rabies
Once you have symptoms, no treatment can help and you will likely die
Rabies is caused by the rabies virus. The virus is common in certain wild animals. Rabies virus is in the saliva (spit) of an infected animal so it can be passed on by a bite. Animals that have had rabies shots almost never get rabies, so they can't give rabies to people.
In the United States, the most common cause of rabies is a bite from:
You may not notice a bat bite, so visit your doctor if you think you may have been bitten, such as if you woke up with a bat in your room.
Other animals that spread rabies in the United States include raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Birds and reptiles do not carry rabies. Rodents (such as rats and mice), squirrels, and rabbits have not spread rabies to people.
Most pets in the United States have been given rabies shots, so they almost never cause rabies in people. However, in places where dogs are not given rabies shots, dog bites are the most common cause of rabies. Such places include Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
Symptoms usually do not start until 30 to 50 days (sometimes as few as 10 days) after being infected. You may feel:
Eventually, your brain infection gets so bad that you die.
Doctors look at your symptoms and ask about animal bites.
Doctors do tests to look for the virus, including:
Skin biopsy (taking a piece of skin from the back of your neck to look at under a microscope)
Spinal tap (using a long needle to get spinal fluid from your lower back)
If an animal bites you, clean the wound with plenty of soap and water and go to the doctor right away. The doctor will clean your wound some more.
Doctors will ask about the animal that bit you and the circumstances of the bite to see if you're at risk of rabies. Some risk factors include:
If doctors think you're at risk, they'll give you:
Rabies immune globulin attacks any rabies virus in your system and gives short-term protection. Rabies vaccine gets your immune system to attack the virus.
If you were bitten by a dog or other pet that had no symptoms of illness, and the pet can be observed by the owner or a vet, doctors may wait 10 days to see if the animal develops symptoms of rabies. If the animal is healthy after 10 days, it didn't have rabies when it bit you. If the animal gets symptoms, you'll be treated.
People who get the immune globulin and all the vaccine shots soon after being bitten almost never get rabies.