Can humans catch rabies? First signs and how to prevent exposure to fatal virus

Rabies is a rare but very serious condition, which infects your brain and nerves, according to the NHS.

Usually spread to humans via the bite or scratch of an infected animal, most commonly a dog, rabies occurs across the world, particularly in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.

In the UK, it’s typically found in a small number of wild bats. Though rare, it’s important to be careful as rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms start appearing.

On World Rabies Day, celebrated every year on September 28 to raise awareness about rabies prevention, here’s a look at the first signs of rabies in humans and how to prevent exposure.

Can humans catch rabies?
People usually get infected by rabies after a deep bite or scratch from animals with rabies.

While rabid dogs are the most common cause, all mammals can carry rabies. Besides dogs, animals like cats, bats, raccoons, foxes, jackals, monkeys and mongooses can carry the disease.

Transmission of rabies can also occur if saliva of infected animals comes into direct contact with human mucus, fresh skin wounds or with your eyes.

Sometimes it can spread by inhaling virus-containing aerosols or through transplantation of infected organs, but this very rare.

Rabies is not spread through unbroken skin or between people.

What are the first signs of rabies?
If it’s not treated, symptoms of rabies will start appearing within three to 12 weeks, though they may start sooner or much later as well.

First symptoms include:

  • a high temperature
  • a headache
  • feeling anxious or generally unwell
  • in some cases, discomfort at the site of the bite.

Symptoms that can start a few days after the first signs are:

  • confusion or aggressive behaviour
  • seeing or hearing things (hallucinations)
  • producing lots of saliva or frothing at the mouth
  • muscle spasms
  • difficulty swallowing and breathing
  • inability to move (paralysis).

Once symptoms start appearing, rabies is almost always fatal, and in such cases the treatment will be focused more on making the person as comfortable as possible.

How to prevent exposure to rabies
If you’re travelling to any areas in the world where rabies is a risk, then make sure you avoid contact with any animals while you’re there. Also avoid touching any dead animals.

In case you’re travelling with a child, ensure they know the dangers of rabies and teach them to tell you in case they’ve been bitten, scratched or licked by any animals. Make sure to check them over for any wounds as well.

You should also consider getting vaccinated against rabies before travelling anywhere that the disease is common, especially if you plan to stay abroad for a month or more, or plan to engage in activities that expose you to animals.

Visit a GP or travel clinic if you think you may need the vaccine.

What to do if you think you have rabies
If you’ve been bitten or scratched by an animal in an area where there is risk of rabies then:

  • immediately clean the wound with running water and soap for several minutes
  • disinfect the wound with an alcohol- or iodine-based disinfectant and apply a simple dressing, if possible
  • go to the nearest m.edical centre, hospital or GP surgery as soon as possible and explain that you have been bitten or scratched

If it’s happened while you’re abroad, don’t wait until you get home – go seek medical help immediately.

It’s important you take precautions and get yourself checked out if you’ve been bitten, even if you’ve had a vaccination.

Getting treatment for rabies just after exposure is nearly 100% effective if it’s started before any symptoms of rabies appear.