There's no specific treatment for rabies infection. Though a small number of people have survived rabies, the disease is usually fatal. For that reason, if you think you've been exposed to rabies, you must get a series of shots to prevent the infection from taking hold.
Treatment for people bitten by animals with rabies
If you've been bitten by an animal that is known to have rabies, you'll receive a series of shots to prevent the rabies virus from infecting you. If the animal that bit you can't be found, it may be safest to assume that the animal has rabies. But this will depend on several factors, such as the type of animal and the situation in which the bite occurred.
Rabies shots include:
- A fast-acting shot (rabies immune globulin) to prevent the virus from infecting you. Part of this injection is given near the area where the animal bit you if possible, as soon as possible after the bite.
- A series of rabies vaccines to help your body learn to identify and fight the rabies virus. Rabies vaccines are given as injections in your arm. You receive four injections over 14 days.
Determining whether the animal that bit you has rabies
In some cases, it's possible to determine whether the animal that bit you has rabies before beginning the series of rabies shots. That way, if it's determined the animal is healthy, you won't need the shots.
Procedures for determining whether an animal has rabies vary by situation. For instance:
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- Pets and farm animals. Cats, dogs and ferrets that bite can be observed for 10 days to see if they show signs and symptoms of rabies. If the animal that bit you remains healthy during the observation period, then it doesn't have rabies and you won't need rabies shots. Other pets and farm animals are considered on a case-by-case basis. Talk to your doctor and local public health officials to determine whether you should receive rabies shots.
- Wild animals that can be caught. Wild animals that can be found and captured, such as a bat that came into your home, can be killed and tested for rabies. Tests on the animal's brain may reveal the rabies virus. If the animal doesn't have rabies, you won't need the shots.
- Animals that can't be found. If the animal that bit you can't be found, discuss the situation with your doctor and the local health department. In certain cases, it may be safest to assume that the animal had rabies and proceed with the rabies shots. In other cases, it may be unlikely that the animal that bit you had rabies and it may be determined that rabies shots aren't necessary.
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- Tintinalli JE, et al. Tintinalli's Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 7th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2011. http://www.accessmedicine.com/resourceTOC.aspx?resourceID=40. Accessed Sept. 1, 2013.
- Hemachudha T, et al. Human rabies: Neuropathogenesis, diagnosis, and management. The Lancet Neurology. 2013;12:498.
- Rabies. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/. Accessed Sept. 1, 2013.
- Papadakis MA, et al. Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment 2013. 52nd ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2013. http://www.accessmedicine.com/resourceTOC.aspx?resourceID=1. Accessed Sept. 1, 2013.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, et al. Use of a reduced (4-dose) vaccine schedule for postexposure prophylaxis to prevent human rabies — Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. MMWR. 2010;59:1. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5902a1.htm. Accessed Sept. 1, 2013.
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