Hydrophobia

Find out about what rabies is, how it's spread, the rabies vaccination and what to do in an emergency.

Rabies is a rare but very serious infection of the brain and nerves. It's usually caught from the bite or scratch of an infected animal, most often a dog.

Rabies is found throughout the world, particularly in Asia, Africa and Central and South America. It's not found in the UK except in a small number of wild bats.

It's almost always fatal once symptoms appear, but treatment before this happens is very effective. There's also a vaccine for people at risk of being infected.

This page covers:

Vaccination

How to avoid being bitten or scratched

What to do if you've been bitten or scratched

Treatment

Symptoms

Rabies in the UK

Rabies vaccination

You should consider getting vaccinated against rabies if:

  • you're travelling to an area where rabies is common and you plan to stay for a month or more or there's unlikely to be quick access to appropriate medical care
  • you're travelling to an area where rabies is common and you plan to do activities that could put you at increased risk of exposure to animals with rabies, such as running or cycling

Visit your GP or a travel clinic if you think you may need the vaccine. It's sometimes free, but most people have to pay.

Even if you've been vaccinated, you should still take precautions to avoid coming into contact with rabies if you're travelling in an area where rabies is found and get medical advice straight away if you've been bitten or scratched.

A few people may need the rabies vaccine because they could come into contact with rabies through their work. If you think this applies to you, speak to your occupational health department.

Read more about the rabies vaccination.

How to avoid being bitten or scratched

All mammals (including monkeys) can carry rabies, but it's most common in:

  • dogs
  • bats
  • raccoons
  • foxes
  • jackals
  • cats
  • mongooses

They can spread the infection if they bite or scratch you, or in rare cases if they lick an open wound or their saliva gets into your mouth or eyes. Rabies isn't spread through unbroken skin or between people.

While travelling in an area where rabies is a risk:

  • avoid contact with animals – some infected animals may behave strangely, but sometimes there may be no obvious signs they're infected
  • avoid touching any dead animals

If you're travelling with a child, make sure they're aware of the dangers and that they should tell you if they've been bitten, scratched or licked by an animal. Check them for any wounds if they come into contact with an animal.

For information about areas where rabies is a risk, see:

What to do if you've been bitten or scratched

If you've been bitten or scratched by an animal in an area with a risk of rabies:

  • immediately clean the wound with running water and soap for several minutes
  • disinfect the wound with an alcohol- or iodine-based disinfectant and apply a simple dressing, if possible
  • go to the nearest medical centre, hospital or GP surgery as soon as possible and explain that you've been bitten or scratched

If this happens while you're abroad, get local medical help immediately. Don't wait until you've returned to the UK.

If you've already returned to the UK without getting medical advice, it's still a good idea to get help – even if it's been several weeks since you were bitten or scratched.

It's unlikely that you've been infected, but it's best to be safe. Post-exposure treatment is nearly 100% effective if it's started before any symptoms of rabies appear.

Treatment after a bite or scratch

If you've been bitten, scratched or licked by an animal that might have rabies, you may need specialist medical treatment to stop you getting rabies. This is called post-exposure treatment.

Post-exposure treatment involves:

  • cleaning and disinfecting the wound
  • a course of the rabies vaccine – you'll need to have five doses over a month if you haven't been vaccinated before, or two doses a few days apart if you have
  • in some cases, a medicine called immunoglobulin given into and around the wound – this provides immediate but short-term protection if there's a significant chance you've been infected

Treatment should be started as soon as possible, ideally within a few hours of being bitten or scratched.

But it's often safe to delay treatment until the next day if the vaccine and/or immunoglobulin need to be specially ordered in by your doctor.

Symptoms of rabies

Without treatment, the symptoms of rabies will usually develop after 3-12 weeks, although they can start sooner or much later than this.

The first symptoms can include:

  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • headache
  • feeling anxious or generally unwell
  • in some cases, discomfort at the site of the bite.

Other symptoms appear a few days later, such as:

Once symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal. In these cases, treatment will focus on making the person as comfortable as possible.

Rabies in the UK

The UK has been rabies-free since the beginning of the 20th century, with the exception of a rabies-like virus in a species of wild bat called Daubenton's bats.

This has only been found in a few bats and the risk of human infection is thought to be low. People who regularly handle bats are most at risk.

There has only been one recorded case of someone catching rabies from a bat in the UK. It's also rare for infected bats to spread rabies to other animals.

But if you find an injured or dead bat, do not touch it. Wear thick gloves if you need to move it. Call the Bat Conservation Trust helpline on 0345 1300 228 for advice.

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