By Wendy Innes. May 7th 2016

Rabies is often the subject of many a pop culture joke, usually involving shaving cream or some other foamy substance. However, it is actually a very serious disease and one that has a very slim window for treatment before it is fatal.

What Is It?

Rabies is a viral infection that, if left untreated, is almost always fatal. It is usually spread by being bitten by an infected animal, though it can also be spread by being bitten by an infected human. It is rare, but possible for rabies to be spread by saliva dispersed into the air. Rabies can be spread to any mammal, animal or human alike.

The rabies virus affects the central nervous system and will cause death unless it is treated immediately. Once symptoms develop, there is nothing that can be done. Treatment is simply supportive, to make the person as comfortable as possible. To date, there have only been 10 reported cases in which a person has survived the rabies virus after symptoms have presented.

There are two courses that the disease can take. The first is called furious rabies and is the type that most people think of when they think of someone infected with rabies. This is the type where people become easily agitated, drool and become afraid of water.

The other type of rabies only occurs about 30 percent of the time and is called paralytic rabies. Paralysis begins at the site of the bite and spreads throughout the body. Eventually the person slips into a coma and dies.

Rabies occurs in more than 150 countries worldwide. Here are some more interesting facts from the World Health Organization (WHO):

  • Kills 55,000 people each year.
  • 40 percent of rabies deaths are children under the age of 15.
  • Dogs are the source of 99 percent of human deaths.
  • More than 15 million people worldwide are treated each year, which averts approximately 327,000 deaths.
  • It is more common in Asia and Africa.
  • Vaccination programs for pets in the United States have had a significant impact on the number of cases. Most now occur as the result of a bite from a wild animal such as a raccoon or bat.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the United Kingdom had once completely eradicated rabies, however, rabid bat species have recently been discovered in Scotland.


The majority of rabies cases occur as the result of a bite from an infected source, usually an animal. The saliva from the mouth enters the blood stream through the open wound of the bite and then spreads to the brain where it causes swelling and inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. Once this occurs death is imminent.

There is an incubation period associated with rabies during which time the virus is moving throughout the body. This period varies widely, usually from one to three months, though it can be as short as a day and as long as a year. Typically during this time no symptoms are seen, though some do experience general flu like symptoms. Also during this time the infected person cannot spread the disease since it hasn't yet traveled to the saliva glands. Once it does reach the saliva glands, a bite that breaks the skin will spread it.


The symptoms of rabies include:

  • Anxiety, agitation or stress
  • Drooling
  • Convulsions
  • Discomfort at the wound site (itching, burning, tingling etc.)
  • Cerebral dysfunction
  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Insomnia
  • Hallucinations
  • Photosensitivity (sensitivity to light)
  • Excitability
  • Paralysis
  • Fever
  • Muscle spasms
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hydrophobia (fear of water)

The symptoms of rabies may not be seen for weeks or months after the initial bite that caused exposure. During that time, a person may feel unwell, with a fever, headache and feeling weak, but may otherwise have no symptoms at all. For this reason it's important that everyone bitten by an animal be examined at a hospital and treated for rabies if a doctor deems it necessary.


Treatment for rabies involves a series of vaccinations against the virus, plus a passive antibody called human immune globulin. This treatment is given up to 14 days after the bite occurred. There is no treatment for someone once symptoms of the virus present; doctors will simply try to keep the person as comfortable as possible for the remainder of their lives.


All household pets should be vaccinated against rabies. Because of vaccination, there has been no case of rabies as the result of a dog bite in the United States for years. However, unvaccinated pets are at a significant risk for contracting the virus from other animals.

Unvaccinated pets are typically euthanized immediately upon exposure to prevent the spread of the virus. If bitten, it is assumed that an animal was exposed until proven otherwise. If the owner of a pet is unwilling to euthanize the animal, then the animal is typically given expensive and lengthy treatment and quarantined for six months. Pets that have been vaccinated are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and may still need treatment and isolation.

Rodents are not typically carriers of rabies; however, there have been a significant number of cases where woodchucks have been infected. Because of this, it is imperative that a person seek treatment and contact local health officials in the event of any animal bite.

Rabies is a devastating disease, but one that can be prevented with prompt treatment. Without it, a bite and the loss of flesh is the least of a person's problems. They just might lose their life instead.


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