Written by Autumn Rivers and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Brucellosis?

Brucellosis is caused by a group of bacteria from the genus Brucella. These bacteria can infect both humans and animals. Brucellosis is often spread through ingesting infected food, such as raw meat and unpasteurized milk. It can also spread through the air or through an open wound. In the U.S., there are up to 200 new cases of brucellosis annually. The people most at risk are those who work with animals and raw meat.

This disease is rare in the U.S. However, infections are serious. You should talk to a doctor if you think you may have been infected with brucellosis. Antibiotics can usually treat the infection. However, some people get this disease repeatedly over the years. Medicine will not necessarily banish it forever.

It is important to minimize your risk of this disease. You can do this by not eating or drinking raw meat and milk. You should also be sure to use precaution when handling animals.

What Puts People at Risk of Contracting Brucellosis?

A variety of animals can contract brucellosis, including goats, cattle, and dogs. Humans can then contract the disease from infected animals. The bacteria are transmitted through inhalation or contact with an open wound. This is why you are at higher risk of being infected if you are frequently around animals. Risk is particularly high for people who come in contact with animal urine, blood, or tissue. The placenta may also be infected with Brucella spp. You may be exposed to the disease if you help an animal through the birthing process.

People who eat or drink raw animal products are also potentially at risk. Unpasteurized milk and cheese, as well as raw meat, can carrythe bacteria that cause this condition. Infection risk is higher if you consume raw food from areas of the world where there is more brucellosis. Such areas include Asia, Africa, and many parts of Europe.

Fortunately, brucellosis is rarely spread from one human to another. However, it can be spread through breastfeeding or sexual contact. It is not spread by casual contact with a pet. Infection is rare without blood or tissue contact.

Symptoms of Brucellosis

The symptoms of brucellosis in humans are like having the flu. They usually include:

  • appetite loss
  • back pain
  • chills
  • lethargy
  • pain in the abdomen
  • pain in the joints
  • fever that comes and goes
  • weight loss

Diagnosing Brucellosis

The symptoms of brucellosis are not specific. Your doctor may test you for this condition if you have unexplained flu-like symptoms. When you go to a doctor with brucellosis-like symptoms, testing may include:

  • blood culture
  • urine culture
  • bone marrow culture
  • cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) testing
  • testing for antibodies to brucellosis

Tell your doctor if you have flu-like symptoms and have been exposed to animals that might have brucellosis. Exposure doesn’t need to be recent. You could be infected even if your contact with animals occurred months ago. The incubation period of this disease may be anywhere from one week to over two months.

Treating Brucellosis

Brucellosis is usually treated with antibiotics. In many cases, both rifampin and doxycycline are prescribed. They should be taken every day for about six weeks.

Complications of Brucellosis

Antibiotics will not always eliminate the bacteria that cause this condition. Your doctor may have to try several drugs before the disease is finally treated. In some cases, the bacteria may remain despite treatment. You could end up with brucellosis long-term.

If treatment isn’t successful, brucellosis can cause complications. These include:

  • encephalitis
  • lesions on the bones and joints
  • endocarditis
  • meningitis

Some of these complications can be lethal. Fortunately, fatality is rare. The mortality rate for brucellosis is as low as 2 percent. Survival is expected, particularly for people without complications.

Preventing Brucellosis

Brucellosis is considered to be preventable. You just have to follow certain precautions. To avoid contracting this disease, you are encouraged to:

  • Avoid consuming raw meat or unpasteurized milk, cheese, and ice cream.
  • Wear gloves and protective glasses when handling animal meat.
  • Cover any open wounds on your skin when coming in contact with animal blood.
  • Wear protective clothing and gloves when providing aid during animal birth.

There is a vaccine for animals. You should look into it if you own or work with animals. However, there is no vaccine for brucellosis in humans. That’s why it’s important to avoid infection.

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