How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans

Edit Article Rabies is a serious viral infection that affects the central nervous system. Thus, rabies is a threat to health and public safety. Rabies may be difficult to identify because it shares symptoms with a wide variety of ailments. However, by identifying the point of infection, watching for clinical signs of infection, and notifying the authorities, you’ll be better able to identify rabies infection.

Identifying the Point of Infection

  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    Look for a bite.The most common way that people are infected with rabies is when they are bitten by a wild, feral, or unvaccinated animal. Ultimately, bites by animals should be treated with caution because of the many diseases that can be transmitted through them.
    • The saliva of an infected animal is the most common way that rabies is spread.
    • Any bite by a wild, stray, or feral animal should get immediate medical attention.
    • Assume that an animal carries rabies unless someone can present you with documentation that the animal has been vaccinated.[1]
  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    Pay attention to scratches.While bites are the most common way that rabies are transmitted to us, the disease can also be transmitted by scratches. Thus, you should consider all animal-inflicted wounds as a possible way that the rabies virus can be introduced into your body.
    • Never dismiss a small scratch as a risk. Even small scratches pose the risk of rabies infection.
    • Scratches inflicted by feral or stray cats and dogs may spread rabies.
    • The most common way for scratches to transmit rabies is when an infected animal’s saliva is involved.[2]
  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    Observe an open wound that has been exposed to an infected animal.While animal-inflicted wounds are the most common way that rabies is spread, it can also be introduced into pre-existing wounds.
    • Fresh wounds and wounds that have not scabbed over are very susceptible to rabies infection.
    • Any wound or injury that is bleeding and comes in contact with the saliva of an infected animal offers a risk of rabies infection.[3]
  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    Think about your interactions with animals.The majority of rabies infections are associated with particular wild animals. Animals that commonly carry rabies include:
    • Bats
    • Raccoons
    • Skunks
    • Woodchucks
    • Foxes
    • Wolves.[4]

Watching for Clinical Signs of Infection

  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    Look for flu-like symptoms.Rabies often manifests as flu-like symptoms early on -- usually within two weeks of infection. Thus, many people incorrectly assume that they are suffering a semi-regular illness rather than a life-threatening ailment. Flu-like symptoms might appear as:
    • Weakness
    • Fever
    • Headache
    • General discomfort.[5]
  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    Check for an itching or prickling sensation at the point of infection.After being infected, the initial point of infection may begin to exhibit an itching or a prickling sensation. This is one of the earliest clinical signs of infection.
    • Itching may begin to occur within several days after initial infection.
    • Itching may or may not be accompanied by redness or other signs of a bacterial infection.
    • The wound might also have a tingling sensation.
    • Have a medical professional evaluate any animal-inflicted wound that looks or feels strange.[6]
  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    Observe loss of cognitive ability.The loss of cognitive ability is perhaps the most serious sign of rabies infection. Thus, any sign of cognitive loss should be taken seriously and the person should seek medical treatment immediately. A rabies infected person may exhibit:
    • Delirium
    • Abnormal behavior
    • Hallucinations
    • Insomnia
    • Confusion
    • Anxiety and agitation.[7]

Seeking Medical Treatment and Contacting Authorities

  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    Gather information about the incident.When seeking medical treatment, you'll need details about the incident and the suspected rabid animal. This information will help medical professionals treat you and help authorities protect public health.
    • Determine what type of animal is responsible. If possible, find out if a dog is stray or belongs to someone.
    • Figure out if the animal was provoked, teased, or scared before biting.
    • Find out the animals’ vaccination status.
    • Describe whether the animal was sick, injured, or appeared in good health.[8]
  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    See a doctor immediately if you suspect you’ve been exposed.Never delay seeking medical help after being exposed to rabies. Without immediate medical attention, you’ll be putting your life at risk. When you seek treatment, a doctor will:
    • Clean and cleanse the wound.
    • Apply a solution that will kill any virus or bacteria present at the wound.
    • Prescribe a course of antibiotics to prevent a bacterial infection.[9]
  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    Vaccinate yourself against rabies.The most common course of action after seeking medical treatment is to be vaccinated against rabies. Immediate vaccination is the only way to prevent rabies from spreading and infecting you.
    • Vaccination needs to be done immediately.
    • Vaccination is perhaps the only way to prevent death of an infected person.
    • Vaccination should only be done if you have not previously been exposed or vaccinated.
    • The rabies vaccine will be administered in the deltoid muscle of your upper arm. Children may receive theirs in the thigh.
    • You may need to visit a hospital or contact county or state health authorities if your doctor does not have the vaccine on hand.[10]
  • How to Diagnose Rabies in Humans
    Call local authorities.After seeking medical treatment, make sure to call animal control and other authorities to report the animal suspected to be carrying rabies. Without reporting it, your local authorities will be unaware of a potential rabies outbreak among wild or domestic animals.
    • Animal control may attempt to capture or euthanize the animal.
    • In many cases, animal control will turn over the animal to a pathologist who will conduct an examination on the deceased animal’s brain tissue. This is the only way to confirm rabies infection.
    • You may also consider contacting your local, state, or county health department to inform them of the attack.
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