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Rabies

7-minute read

What is rabies?

Rabies is an infection that affects the brain and central nervous system. It is caused by a type of virus called a lyssavirus that 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.

Rabies is almost always fatal, but treatment can prevent the infection from developing.

There is no rabies in Australia. However, Australian bats carry other viruses in the lyssavirus family including Australian bat lyssavirus, which is closely related to rabies.

When should I see a doctor?

Even if you have had the rabies vaccine, if you are bitten or scratched by a bat in Australia or if you are overseas and are bitten or scratched by a 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

You can check the countries where rabies is endemic on the World Health Organization website.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

The symptoms of rabies usually first appear 1 to 3 months after the bite, but they can appear anywhere from a few days to a few years after exposure. Symptoms include:

  • loss of appetite
  • headache
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • agitation and anxiety
  • confusion
  • muscle aches
  • weak arms or legs
  • vomiting
  • pain and tingling (sometimes itching) or numbness at the wound site
  • difficulty swallowing
  • fear of water, air and/or bright light
  • hallucinations
  • insomnia

Once symptoms appear, there is no treatment for rabies. The illness progresses rapidly to paralysis, delirium, convulsions and death, usually within a week or 2.

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

What causes rabies?

Rabies is caused by infection with the rabies virus. People can catch the virus from infected mammals through bites and scratches, or from their saliva through the eyes, mouth, nose or broken skin.

Animals in Australia do not have rabies. Overseas, rabies occurs in mammals including bats, monkeys, foxes, cats, raccoons, skunks, jackals and mongooses.

Australian bat lyssavirus occurs in Australian bats. It can be transmitted from bats to humans via a bite or scratch from an infected bat. While it is very rare, you should assume that any bat in Australia could potentially carry the virus.

How is rabies diagnosed?

If you think you have been scratched or bitten by an animal that may have rabies, it is essential that you should seek medical attention right away.

A doctor will talk to you about what happened and whether you have any symptoms. They may take saliva, blood or skin tests to diagnose whether you have been infected. They may take a sample of your spinal fluid with a lumbar puncture.

How is rabies treated?

Even if rabies is not confirmed, treatment should start straight away. This is called post-exposure prophylaxis and is done to prevent any infection from developing.

First the wound will be cleaned and then you will be given an injection of immune globulin, which strengthens the immune system against the rabies virus.

A series of rabies vaccinations must then be given over time, usually over 2 weeks.

If you receive treatment abroad, ask for a post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) certificate listing what immunoglobulin was used, how much was used, the vaccine batch number, the route and dates it was given, and contact details of the clinic you attended. Show this information to your doctor as soon as you return to Australia.

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. Avoid handling any bat in Australia.

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

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 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

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

Last reviewed: April 2021


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