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Q fever

4-minute read

Key facts

  • Q fever is a bacterial infection, usually spread by exposure to animals, so people in close contact with animals are at greatest risk.
  • Some people with Q fever have mild symptoms or none at all, but some people develop long-lasting (chronic) Q fever.
  • Most people with Q fever are treated with antibiotics and make a full recovery.
  • If you are over age 15 and work with animals, speak with your doctor about Q fever vaccination.

What is Q fever?

Q fever is an infection caused by a type of bacteria that you usually catch from animals.

Most people with Q fever suffer a mild infection similar to the flu, which can be treated easily. Rarely, people with Q fever experience serious health issues such as pneumonia and hepatitis.

What are the symptoms of Q fever?

Only about 1 in every 2 people with Q fever has symptoms. Your symptoms usually start about 2 to 3 weeks after you were infected and may last from 4 days to 6 weeks.

Symptoms of Q fever are similar to symptoms of the flu, including:

What causes Q fever?

Q fever is caused by the bacterium coxiella burnetii, which is mostly found in farm animals such as cattle, sheep and goats. It is also found in other animals including dogs, cats and kangaroos.

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

How can an animal infect me with Q fever?

If you work with animals, you have a higher risk of being infected, for example, if you are a meat worker, shearer, farmer or vet. You usually get Q fever from breathing in infected air particles carrying dried up animal matter from an infected environment, such as these animal substances:

  • milk
  • urine
  • faeces (poo)
  • placenta

Clothing, wool, animal hides and straw can also carry the bacteria.

Infection rarely spreads from person to person. Drinking unpasteurised (unsterilised) milk may also put you at risk, as pasteurisation is a process that kills bacteria.

When should I see my doctor?

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

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How is Q fever diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects you have Q fever, they may refer you for blood tests to confirm the diagnosis.

How is Q fever treated?

Q fever is commonly treated with antibiotics. If you have a mild infection you’re likely to recover quickly. If you have chronic Q fever, you may need to take antibiotics for up to 18 months.

Can Q fever be prevented?

If you are at high risk of getting infected, and you are over 15 years old, you should have a Q fever vaccine to prevent infection.

Vaccination is recommended for people who work with animals. You should have skin tests and blood tests before vaccination to check if you’ve been exposed to Q fever in the past. If you’ve recovered from Q fever, you may have lifelong immunity to re-infection.

Do not drink unpasteurised milk, as this may cause infection.

Complications of Q fever

You may develop long lasting fatigue after infection with Q fever. A few people develop long lasting (chronic) Q fever, which can recur months or years later and can cause serious problems, such as damage to your heart and other organs. It can also cause serious problems if you are pregnant. You’re at greater risk of chronic Q fever if you have other underlying illnesses that weaken your immune system.

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Last reviewed: June 2022

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