Rabies — the word probably brings to mind an enraged animal frothing at the mouth. This painful, life threatening, and preventable condition can result from an encounter with an infected animal.

Rabies is caused by a virus that affects the central nervous system (CNS), in particular the brain.

Domestic dogs, cats, and rabbits — and wild animals such as skunks, raccoons, and bats — are able to transfer the virus to humans via bites and scratches. The key to fighting the virus is a quick response.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 59,000 people worldwide die from rabies every year. About 99 percent of them have been bitten by a rabid dog.

The availability of vaccines for both animals and humans has led to a steep decline in rabies cases in the United States. The country has two to three rabies deaths a year.

The period between the bite and the onset of symptoms is called the incubation period. It usually takes 3 weeks to 3 months for a person to develop rabies symptoms once they’ve contracted the infection, per the CDC. However, incubation periods can also range from 1 week to 1 year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The initial onset of rabies begins with flu-like symptoms, including fever, muscle weakness, and tingling. You may also feel burning at the bite site.

As the virus continues to attack the CNS, there are two different types of the disease that can develop: furious rabies and paralytic rabies.

Furious rabies

People who develop furious rabies will be hyperactive and excitable and may display erratic behavior. Other symptoms include:

Paralytic rabies

This form of rabies takes longer to set in. People with the infection slowly become paralyzed, will eventually slip into a coma, and die. According to the WHO, 20 percent of human rabies cases are paralytic.

Animals with rabies transfer the virus to other animals and humans via a scratch or saliva following a bite. However, any contact with the mucous membranes or an open wound can also transmit the virus.

The transmission of this virus is considered to occur exclusively from animal to animal and animal to human. While human-to-human transmission of the virus is extremely rare, there have been a handful of cases reported following corneal transplants. For humans who contract rabies, a bite from an unvaccinated dog is by far the most common culprit.

Once a person has been bitten, the virus spreads through their nerves to their brain. Bites or scratches on the head and neck are thought to speed up the brain and spinal cord involvement because of the location of the initial trauma. For that reason, if you’re bitten on the neck, it’s especially important to seek help immediately.

Following a bite, the rabies virus spreads by way of the nerve cells to the brain. Once in the brain, the virus multiplies rapidly. This activity causes severe inflammation of the brain and spinal cord after which the person deteriorates rapidly and dies.

Animals that can spread rabies

Both wild and domesticated animals can spread the rabies virus. The following animals are the main sources of rabies infection in humans:

  • dogs
  • bats
  • ferrets
  • cats
  • cows
  • goats
  • horses
  • rabbits
  • beavers
  • coyotes
  • foxes
  • monkeys
  • raccoons
  • skunks
  • woodchucks

For most people, the risk of contracting rabies is relatively low. However, there are certain situations that may put you at a higher risk. These include:

  • living in an area populated by bats
  • living in a rural area where there’s greater exposure to wild animals and little or no access to vaccines and preventive therapy
  • traveling to developing countries
  • frequent camping and exposure to wild animals
  • being under the age of 15 years old (rabies is most common in this age group)

Although dogs are responsible for most rabies cases worldwide, bats are the cause of most rabies deaths in the United States.

There’s no test to detect the early stages of rabies infection. After the onset of symptoms, a doctor can use tests such as a blood, tissue, or saliva test to help determine whether you have the disease. Tissue tests include the direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) test and a biopsy of the neck.

If you’ve been bitten by a wild animal, a doctor will typically administer a preventive shot of the rabies vaccine to stop the infection before symptoms set in.

Once a person has developed rabies, it’s rare for the disease to be cured. However, after being exposed to the rabies virus, you can have a series of injections to prevent an infection from setting in.

Rabies immunoglobulin, which gives you an immediate dose of rabies antibodies to fight the infection, helps to prevent the virus from getting a foothold. Then, getting the rabies vaccine is the key to avoiding the disease.

Animal control will probably try to find the animal that bit you so that it can be tested for rabies. If the animal isn’t rabid, you can avoid the large round of rabies shots. However, if the animal can’t be found, the safest course of action is to take the preventive shots.

Getting a rabies vaccination as soon as possible after an animal bite is the best way to prevent the infection. The rabies vaccine is given in a series of five shots over 14 days.

Doctors will treat your wound by washing it for at least 15 minutes with soap and water, detergent, or iodine. Then, they’ll give you a shot of the rabies immunoglobin and you’ll start the round of four injections for the rabies vaccine. This protocol is known as post-exposure prophylaxis.

Side effects of the rabies vaccine

The rabies immunoglobulin and vaccine can rarely cause side effects, including:

Rabies is a preventable disease. There are simple measures you can take to help keep you from catching rabies:

  • Get a rabies vaccination before traveling to developing countries, working closely with animals, or working in a lab handling the rabies virus.
  • Vaccinate your pets.
  • Keep your pets from roaming outside.
  • Report stray animals to animal control.
  • Avoid contact with wild animals.
  • Prevent bats from entering living spaces or other structures near your home.

Report any signs of an infected animal to your local animal control or health departments.