Rabies in Humans: Symptoms and Treatment

Updated on October 31, 2018
leahlefler profile image

After having obtained a degree in biochemistry, Leah works for a small biotechnology company and enjoys writing about science.

Rabies Vaccine

A child receives a rabies vaccine after being bitten by a rabid dog. Rutherford, Tennessee, 1929.
A child receives a rabies vaccine after being bitten by a rabid dog. Rutherford, Tennessee, 1929. | Source

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a disease caused by a rhabdovirus that infects the nervous system. This virus consists of a single strand of RNA in a protein core, surrounded by a lipid sheath. The virus is in the genus lyssavirus, named for the Greek goddess of madness and frenzy. There are different species of lyssavirus, dependent on the host animal.

Once an animal (mammal) is infected, the virus migrates centrally throughout the nervous system, then spreads outward to other tissues. The salivary glands become infected, and the animal will demonstrate no fear of humans.

This is often when a bite occurs: an aggressive and apparently "tame" animal will bite a human. The rabies virus has an incubation time of one to three months, but can vary from 1 week to a year in length. If an individual obtains a rabies vaccination (in addition to human Rabies Immune Globulin, or HRIG) promptly after exposure to the virus, the infection is usually prevented.

Unfortunately, infected humans who do not receive prompt vaccination and develop symptoms are likely to die. While this disease used to claim 100% of the lives of those infected, new treatment options have shown that rabies can be survivable if the infected person is placed into a coma until the body can produce enough antibodies to fight off the virus. This protocol protects the body from the effects of an infected brain: the first person to survive a rabies infection was a 15-year-old girl named Jeanna Giese in 2004 (more about her below).

Rabies Virus Infection

Symptoms of a Human Rabies Infection

The early symptoms of rabies can mimic other maladies that affect the brain. If a person has no recollection of being bitten by a rabid animal the diagnosis might be confused with other neurologic disorders. Guillain-Barre Syndrome demonstrates many of the same symptoms as a rabies infection, and may be given as an (incorrect) diagnosis in a patient who does not have a stated history of exposure to an infected animal.

The symptoms of rabies in humans include:

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Itching or a "pins and needles" sensation at the site of the bite wound
  • Weakness
  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Insomnia
  • Photophobia
  • Hydrophobia

Once the disease advances, it can take two different forms. "Furious" rabies causes aggressive and uncontrollable behavior - this accounts for approximately 80% of rabies cases in humans. "Paralytic" rabies may be confused with Guillain-Barre and occurs in approximately 20% of cases.

Furious rabies causes hallucinations and aggressive behavior. The infected individual will have delusions. Other physical symptoms include the hair standing on end, excessive sweating, and excessive salivation. Spasms in the throat muscles prevent the victim from drinking water, and will cause foaming at the mouth when the thirsty patient attempts to drink. The spasms will eventually cause the victim to avoid water altogether - this is the reason for the use of the name "hydrophobia" (literally, "fear of water") for rabies.

Paralytic rabies causes a gradual loss of sensation, starting in the hands and feet and spreading inward. These victims to not experience hallucinations and do not develop the classic signs of "hydrophobia."

The end result of furious and paralytic rabies is the same: the patient slips into a coma and heart or lung failure causes death.

Lyssavirus Phylogeny

Rabies Virus
Group V (single stranded RNA)
Type Species
Rabies virus

Is Rabies Always Caused by a Bite?

While rare, it is possible for rabies to spread in the absence of a bite from an infected mammal. Rare cases of mucous membrane exposure, licks from an infected animal over an open wound, and airborne infection have been reported. This is exceedingly rare: only 5 cases of non-bite rabies were reported in the United States between 1950 and 1980. Four of the five cases were caused by the inhalation of rabies virus: two of these cases were contracted by researchers who were exposed to heavy virus loads in a laboratory. The other two were contracted by cave explorers who were exposed after they entered caves filled with the feces of infected bats.The fifth case of rabies infection in this time period was due to a cornea transplant from an infected individual.

In 2004, three people were killed by rabies after organ transplantation. The organ donor had died of a brain hemorrhage of unknown origin: while he passed the screening questions for becoming an organ donor, a later investigation revealed that he had been bitten by a bat. The three organ recipients received his liver and kidneys, and went on to develop the disease. Laboratory tests confirmed that all three organ recipients died of rabies, due to the transmission of the disease from the infected donor.

In 2013, another organ recipient died from rabies acquired through transplantation. The donor died in 2011, and donated his kidneys, heart, and liver. A male patient who received a kidney died on February 27, 2013 at a VA hospital in Maryland. The donor died of encephalitis and had an altered mental status prior to death: testing for rabies is not performed on organ donors, so the organs were donated despite the suspicious cause of death. The remaining three organ recipients have been treated with immunoglobulin and five doses of the rabies vaccine to prevent the disease.

Airborne Rabies

Rabies can be transmitted through the air in locations with a heavy viral load. Spelunkers have been infected with Rabies after breathing in the virus in caves densely populated with bats.
Rabies can be transmitted through the air in locations with a heavy viral load. Spelunkers have been infected with Rabies after breathing in the virus in caves densely populated with bats. | Source

Wild Animals and Rabies

The following wild animals are the most likely to be infected with rabies:

  • Bats
  • Raccoons
  • Foxes
  • Coyotes
  • Skunks

Rabies Prevention and Avoidance

People who are at high risk for rabies exposure should get a preventive vaccine. These individuals include:

  • Rabies laboratory workers.
  • Spelunkers (cave explorers).
  • Veterinarians.
  • Animal handlers.

People who are not in high-risk jobs can avoid rabies by recognizing the signs in infected wildlife. Animals with rabies will be unafraid of humans, aggressive, and will demonstrate bizarre behavior. Avoid any wild animal that is exhibiting strange behavior or that approaches a human without any signs of fear.

Vaccinating domesticated cats and dogs is vital: while 90% of rabies occurs in wild animals, the majority of infected humans obtain bites from their pet cat or dog. Cases of rabies in cats have been on the rise, and nearly 36% of cats do not receive regular care from a veterinarian in the United States. Regular vaccination of pets in the household will prevent exposure to the most common route of rabies transmission.

Oral Rabies Vaccine for Wildlife

Oral rabies vaccine is often dropped into wildlife areas. This bait is located in a wildlife preserve in Estonia.
Oral rabies vaccine is often dropped into wildlife areas. This bait is located in a wildlife preserve in Estonia. | Source

The Rabies Vaccine

The first rabies vaccine was developed by Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux: the two scientists took brain tissue from infected and killed rabbits, allowed the tissue to dry, and prepared injections from this material. In 1885, a nine year old boy named Joseph Meister was repeatedly bitten by a rabid dog. On July 6, the first successful rabies vaccination was given to Meister, who never developed any signs or symptoms of a rabies infection.

The development of a Duck Embryo Vaccine (DEV) made the vaccination easier to obtain. This vaccine was injected into the patient's abdominal fat for a period of 14 days (or more). This vaccine is no longer used, and the feared "shots in the stomach" are no longer used. The DEV vaccinehad many side effects, including anaphylactic (allergic) reactions.

The modern rabies vaccine is a recombinant vaccine: the rabies virus glycoprotein is added to vaccinia virus: this induces an immune response against rabies. This vaccine is called V-RG and is sold under the brand name Raboral™. This vaccine has the advantage of oral administration to wildlife, which helps curb the spread of rabies in nature.

Humans now receive 4 injections of the rabies vaccine after exposure to the virus. The first dose is given immediately after exposure, and additional doses are given on the 3rd, 7th, and 14th days after exposure. When the first injection of rabies vaccine is given, Rabies Immune Globulin should be given at the same time.

Rabies-Free Countries

Several countries in Africa, Oceana, Europe, the Middle East, and North America are rabies-free. While no cases of rabies have been reported in Australia, the bats do carry lyssavirus.
Several countries in Africa, Oceana, Europe, the Middle East, and North America are rabies-free. While no cases of rabies have been reported in Australia, the bats do carry lyssavirus. | Source

The Milwaukee Protocol: A Cure for Rabies

Until recently, those who developed the neurological symptoms of a rabies infection had a 100% rate of fatality. A doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin changed that statistic with the successful cure of a 15-year-old girl.

Jeanna Giese was attending mass at her local Catholic church when she noticed a small bat flying in the church building. The bat was bothering the congregation, and Jeanna was an animal lover. When the bat landed, she picked up the animal by its wings and took it outside. The bat bit her and wouldn’t release her finger: she was able to pry the animal off her hand and threw it toward a tree. A month later, Jeanna felt sick. She was unable to play at her volleyball game and missed the homecoming parade because she could hardly move. The next thing she remembered was being in the hospital, where the neurologist was told about the bat bite and an MRI was ordered. Astonishingly, the neurologist told her it was nothing to worry about and sent the sick child home.

Jeanna returned the next day, even sicker than she had been the day before. Tests for Lyme Disease, meningitis, and a host of other conditions turned up negative. When the girl’s pediatrician visited and viewed her deteriorating state, Jeanna’s mother informed him of the bat bite. The pediatrician immediately suspected rabies and had Giese transferred to the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

There, Dr. Rodney Willoughby proposed a radical experimental treatment. He knew that the brains of rabies patients often survived the assault of the virus: the patients typically died of organ failure before the immune system could attack the virus. He wanted to put Jeanna into an induced coma to shut down her brain functions. She would be placed on anti-virals and life support until her immune system could mount a response to the virus. Her parents agreed.

Six days later, Giese was brought out of the induced coma and was able to keep her eyes open. She was in the hospital for 11 weeks, and had to re-learn how to walk, talk, and eat. This was a trying time for Jeanna, as she missed her family and friends greatly while in the hospital. Jeanna was released from the hospital on January 1, 2005: the first human survivor of the rabies virus. Jeanna Giese has since graduated with a degree in Biology from Lakeland College.

This treatment for rabies has been dubbed the Milwaukee Protocol, and has saved more than one life.

Nelsy Gomez was bitten by a rabid cat in her village in Columbia. She was transferred to the Hospital Universitario del Valle in Cali, Colombia, where the infectious disease specialist instituted the protocol. Gomez’s immune system response was very strong to the virus, and her brain swelled as she was fighting the infection. While she did regain motor control of her arms and legs, she developed pneumonia and died. While the child did not survive, the rabies infection was halted and the protocol was considered a success.

A 15 year old child in Brazil developed rabies after a bite from a bat. Despite receiving 4 doses of the rabies vaccine, symptoms still developed and Marciano Menezes de Silva was placed in a coma according to the Milwaukee Protocol. The protocol did halt the rabies infection, but Marciano was ventilator dependent after emerging from his medically-induced coma. This case highlights the importance of receiving all five rabies vaccinations after exposure in addition to the immunoglobulin. Most rabies vaccination failures are due to a failure to comply with the vaccination protocol.

In 2011, an 8 year old girl named Precious Reynolds was scratched on the arm by a feral cat during recess. She contracted rabies and was placed under the Milwaukee Protocol at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. After two weeks in intensive care, Precious was released to the general ward to complete her recovery.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

  • Are rabies shots given on the stomach?

    The rabies vaccine is no longer given on the stomach. The original version of the vaccine was designed to be administered to the abdominal area, but the practice was discontinued in the 1980s. Currently, those who have been exposed to rabies receive four doses of the rabies vaccine in the upper deltoid muscle (upper arm). The first dose is given immediately, then the following doses are given on the third day, at one week, and two weeks following exposure. An injection of rabies immunoglobulin is also required at the time of the first rabies vaccination. People who work in high-risk jobs that might expose them to rabies can get a preventive rabies vaccine. The pre-exposure vaccine only requires three doses and the second dose is given one week after the first dose. The final dose is given three to four weeks after the first dose. Those who have had the preventive vaccine will still require two additional doses of the rabies vaccine if they are exposed to the virus on the day of exposure and three days later. Those who are pre-vaccinated do not require the rabies immunoglobulin injection.


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    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      11 months ago from Western New York

      Fortunately, human infections are fairly rare. The disease is so devastating if not treated early, and I am sorry your father had to fight this disease as a resident. Awareness is key to obtain prophylactic treatment!

    • Cooking Jam profile image

      Muhammad Abdullah 

      11 months ago

      Back in the day, my father was a resident and he told me how he had to fight rabies. Its really nice to read about it finally.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      3 years ago from Western New York

      Rabies is a terrible disease, Haider Mama. Anyone who is bitten should consult medical professionals immediately to receive the immunoglobulin against the virus. While the newer medical treatments make it possible for a few to survive rabies, the chances are still rather low and many experience long-term effects from the disease.

    • Haider Mama profile image


      3 years ago from Melbourne

      As a medical student it is fascinating to read about this virus/disease. What interests me about rabies is that it can start affecting the victim even after a month or more.

      Jeanna's journey through this disease was very interesting. I am surprised to know she had relearn many daily things after returning from coma.

      I enjoyed reading your hub because it is backed by facts. Awesome!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      7 years ago from Western New York

      The ability to treat Rabies after the infection has made itself apparent is certainly a relief, though vaccination and immediate treatment after a bite is absolutely vital. Preventing rabies infection is extremely important, as the Milwaukee Protocol is not always successful. Thanks for the comment, kschimmel!

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 

      7 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      Information-packed hub! It is so good to know rabies is no longer 100% fatal, although vaccination is still absolutely essential.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      7 years ago from Western New York

      The anti-rabies vaccination programs have been very successful (along with dog licensing requirements), but there is still a danger with stray, un-vaccinated dogs. Many of the recent cases of human rabies have come from bat bites or from feral cats. There was just another case of rabies transmission from organ transplantation - the incubation time was 17 months for this case (donation was in 2011 and the victim died in February 2013). They really need to screen organ donors with encephalitis - if a patient dies with an altered mental state and encephalitis, they should test the tissue for rabies before offering up the organs for donation! Thanks for the comment, teaches12345!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      Leah, I will never forget the time I saw a rabid dog in our neighborhood. I was about eight years old and it fightened us as it walked down the street towards our home. It was a sight, poor thing. I am glad that there is better awareness of this disease and prevention. Great article!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      7 years ago from Western New York

      Prompt treatment is very important if a person has been bitten by a wild animal, particularly if the bite was from a bat, raccoon, or from a feral cat/stray dog. Prompt treatment with the rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin will prevent nearly all cases of rabies - the Milwaukee Protocol is a fantastic advancement, but not everyone has survived the treatment.

    • torrilynn profile image


      7 years ago


      i think its important for everyone to know if they have rabies

      and to get treated accordingly thanks for the hub

      definitely spreading this message along to others

      Voted up and Shared


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