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Vet and farmer tending to an animal.
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Q fever

3-minute read

Q fever is an infection caused by a type of bacteria, which usually spreads to people from animals or their infected surroundings. Vaccination is advised for people at high risk such as those who work with animals.

What is Q fever?

Q fever is an infection. For most people, it’s a mild infection similar to the flu and can be treated easily.

But for a few people, it can lead to serious health issues such as pneumonia and hepatitis.

A few people develop chronic Q fever, which can resurface months or years later and can cause serious problems such as damage to the heart and other organs. It can also cause serious problems for pregnant women.

What causes Q fever?

Q fever is caused by the bacteria Coxiella burnetii, which is mostly found in farm animals such as:

  • cattle
  • sheep
  • goats

But it may also be found in other animals such as:

  • dogs
  • cats
  • kangaroos

Animals with Q fever don’t usually look sick but they can spread the bacteria to people.

How is Q fever passed onto humans?

Anyone who works with animals, such as meat workers, shearers, farmers and vets, has a higher than normal risk of getting infected. People usually get Q fever from breathing in infected air particles carrying dried up animal matter such as:

  • milk
  • urine
  • faeces (poo)
  • placenta

Clothing, wool, hides and straw can also carry the bacteria. Infection rarely spreads from person to person. Drinking unpasteurised (unsterilised) milk may also be a risk - pasteurisation is a process that kills bacteria.

Q fever diagnosis

If your doctor suspects you have Q fever, they may ask you to have a number of blood tests to confirm their diagnosis.

Q fever symptoms

Only about half of the people with Q fever have symptoms. These usually start within 2 to 3 weeks of getting infected and last from 4 days to 6 weeks. The symptoms are like having the flu such as:

Long lasting fatigue can follow infection with Q fever.

Q fever treatment

Q fever is commonly treated with antibiotics and people with mild infections recover quickly. If you have chronic Q fever, you will need to take antibiotics for up to 18 months.

Q fever prevention

If you are at high risk of getting infected, and you are over 15 years, you can be given a Q fever vaccine to prevent infection. Do not drink unpasteurised milk, as this may cause infection.

If you’re concerned that you’re at risk or if you have Q fever symptoms, see your doctor.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2020

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