What is leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection caused by the bacteria Leptospira. It occurs in both humans and animals, and mainly in tropical areas where conditions are humid, such as northern Queensland or south-east Asia.
How does leptospirosis spread?
It starts with an infected animal such as a rodent, cow, horse, sheep, pig, dog, possum or bandicoot.
These animals can pass the infection on through their urine, or in infected tissue after they die.
People come in contact with the bacterium in soil, mud or flood waters. The bacterium gets into the body:
- through cuts or abrasions in the skin
- through the lining of your mouth, nose and throat, or
- through swallowing contaminated water.
It is very rare for leptospirosis to be transmitted from human to human.
Who is at risk of leptospirosis?
You are at risk of leptospirosis if you:
- are a farmer, especially of sugar cane or bananas
- work in an abattoir
- are a vet
- are exposed to water, mud or soil contaminated with animal urine
- come into close contact with animals.
If you have leptospirosis, your doctor has to notify the health department, so they can find ways to stop the spread of the bacteria.
What are the symptoms of leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis can cause different problems at different times.
If you pick up the infection, you will usually start to feel ill within 5-14 days with:
- severe headache
- sore muscles
- red eyes.
These symptoms can be easily confused with other conditions, such as influenza.
Most people with leptospirosis then feel better. Then 1-2 weeks later, some people develop a second, more severe, illness. This can include:
- irregular heartbeat
- excessive bleeding in the skin and mucous membranes
- kidney failure.
This second phase is also known as Weil’s disease, and might need treatment in hospital. Recovery can take time. Occasionally it is fatal.
How is leptospirosis diagnosed?
Your doctor will talk to you and examine you. The definitive way to diagnose leptospirosis is a urine test or a number of blood tests.
Your doctor will also consider your circumstances as part of your diagnosis – for example, if you’ve been exposed to infected animals, or contaminated soil or water.
How is leptospirosis treated?
Antibiotics are used to treat leptospirosis, most often doxycycline and penicillin. These work best when given early in the disease.
If you have the second phase, the treatment will depend on how you are affected.
Can leptospirosis be prevented?
Vaccinating animals is an important step in preventing leptospirosis, but there is no vaccine for humans.
You can help prevent infection by taking some simple precautions.
- Avoid flood water and any other water you think might be contaminated.
- Wear protective clothing such as shoes, gloves, goggles, when working with animals, or working in water, soil or mud.
- Cover any cuts and abrasions on your skin with a waterproof dressing.
- Always wash and dry your hands, to prevent infection spreading.
- Shower after working in mud, soil, water or with animals you think might be infected.
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Last reviewed: September 2021