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Rabies is an infection caused by a virus. It affects the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) of mammals, including humans. It is nearly always deadly if not treated before symptoms begin.
Animals that are infected with rabies—rabid animals—can spread the disease through their saliva or through brain tissue.
It is rare for people in Canada or the United States to get rabies. It is more common in developing nations.
People usually get rabies when a rabid animal bites them. People in Canada and the United States are most likely to get rabies from bats. People in many other countries are most likely to get rabies from dog bites.
Bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes are the animals most likely to have rabies in Canada and the U.S.. Small mammals such as mice and squirrels almost never have rabies.
Sometimes the rabies virus can spread to pets, such as dogs, cats, and ferrets. But household pets rarely get rabies, because most of them get rabies vaccines. Pets that stay indoors are very unlikely to get rabies.
It's possible to get rabies even when you don't see an animal bite. For example, bat bites or scratches may be so small that you don't notice them. If you or your children come in direct contact with a bat, or if you find a bat in a closed room with a sleeping person, call your doctor right away.
Signs of rabies in animals may include drooling, foaming at the mouth, or paralysis. A pet with rabies also may behave differently than usual, such as acting shy when the pet usually is friendly. A wild animal with rabies may have no fear of humans.
Rabies in humans begins with symptoms such as fever, cough, or sore throat. Later, symptoms become more serious and can include restlessness, hallucinations, and seizures. The final stage is coma and death.
The time from exposure to the virus until symptoms appear usually is 2 to 3 months. In rare cases, it may be shorter or much longer.
The treatment for someone who has been exposed to rabies is a series of shots known as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). These shots help the body's immune system destroy the disease in its early stages. Getting PEP before symptoms appear usually prevents infection, and you are likely to recover.
If you think you've been exposed to the rabies virus, it's very important to get medical care before symptoms begin. If symptoms appear, it's too late for a cure, and the infection will probably lead to death.
In Canada and the United States, PEP has two parts, usually given at the same time:
First, wash the animal bite, scratch, or open sore with soap and water. Then call your doctor, your local health unit or Health Link at 811 right away. They can advise you on what to do next.
To avoid contact with the rabies virus:
Preventive rabies vaccination may be recommended if you are at high risk of exposure because of your work or hobbies. It may also be recommended if you plan to travel in areas where rabies is a risk, such as parts of Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. Contact your doctor or public health unit for more information.
Adaptation Date: 3/1/2022
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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