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What is rabies?

Rabies is caused by infection with the rabies virus, or other viruses in the lyssavirus family including Australian bat lyssavirus. Rabies is usually acquired from a bite or scratch from an infected animal.  It can also be contracted from contact with broken skin, or through organ transplantation.

Animals in Australia do not have rabies. Overseas, rabies occurs in dogs, cats, monkeys and foxes. Lyssavirus does occur in Australian bats. It can be transmitted from bats to humans via a bite or scratch from an infected bat. You may be at risk if you have contact with some wild or domestic mammals such as dogs, cats, and monkeys in a country outside of Australia where there is an increased risk of rabies.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

The symptoms of rabies usually first appear 2 to 3 months after being infected, but they can appear anywhere from a few days to a few years after exposure.

Early symptoms include loss of appetite, headache, fever, fatigue muscle aches and vomiting. Many people have pain and tingling (sometimes itching) or numbness at the wound site. They may also have difficulty swallowing and a fear of water, air and/or bright light may follow.

Once symptoms appear, there is no treatment for rabies. The illness progresses rapidly to paralysis, delirium, convulsions and death, usually within a week or two. There is wide variability in the time it takes for symptoms to appear after exposure to an infected animal (from several days to several years).

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Can rabies be prevented?

The best protection against being infected with rabies is to stay away from animals when you are overseas in an area where rabies is known to occur. Avoid contact with stray animals including cats and dogs.

Speak to your doctor if you are travelling to a country where there is a rabies virus risk. You may benefit from vaccination.

Even if you have had the rabies vaccine, if you are bitten or scratched by a bat or overseas mammal including a cat or dog, you should:

  • immediately wash the wound thoroughly with water and soap if available for 15 minutes
  • apply an antiseptic with anti-virus action such as povidone-iodine, iodine tincture, aqueous iodine solution or alcohol (ethanol) after washing
  • seek medical attention as soon as possible

If you are at risk of infection, you may require treatment with a combination of rabies immunoglobulin and rabies vaccine.

Rabies vaccine

Vaccination is your best protection against rabies. This table explains how the rabies vaccine is given, who should get it, and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines, so talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you.

When to get vaccinated? Before you go overseas to countries where there is rabies. You should consult your doctor or visit a travel health clinic 6 to 12 weeks before you leave Australia.
How many doses are required? 3 doses over 1 month.
How is it administered? Injection
Is it free?

No, there is a cost for this vaccine.

Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.

Common side effects The vaccine is very safe. Side effects may include a sore arm, swelling where the injection went in, headache or nausea.

Resources and support

  • If you need to know more about rabies or need advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: May 2020

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Rabies is a disease of the nervous system caused by the rabies virus. Rabies infects domestic and wild mammals, and is spread to people through close contact with infected saliva (usually from bites or scratches, but potentially from licks to the eyes or mouth).

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Rabies: information for travellers -

Rabies is a viral disease spread by bites from infected animals, such as dogs and monkeys. If not treated quickly, rabies is often fatal.

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Rabies and lyssavirus

Rabies virus and Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) belong to a group of viruses called lyssaviruses.

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Rabies and Australian bat lyssavirus infection fact sheet - Fact sheets

Lyssaviruses are a group of viruses that includes rabies and bat lyssavirus. Lyssavirus is carried by bats in Australia. Rabies is carried by mammals in many overseas countries. Both are spread by bites and scratches.

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Australian Bat Lyssavirus

Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) is a virus that can be transmitted from bats to humans, causing serious illness.

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Thankfully Lyssavirus is a rare disease in Australia and only three human deaths have been recorded since it was discovered in 1996. Read more...

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If you are travelling overseas, check with your doctor well in advance to find out what immunisations you need.

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Older travellers, pregnant women, people with a chronic condition and those taking prescription medicines may need to carry documentation of their medical requirements.

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