How Rabies Is Treated

Show Article Table of Contents

Human cases of rabies are very rare in the United States, with only 23 cases reported from 2008 to 2017. Still, it’s important to understand the treatment protocol for rabies, a lethal viral infection that triggers inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. As the World Health Organization (WHO) notes, effective treatment soon after exposure to rabies can prevent the onset of symptoms, and ultimately save your life.

If you are bitten by an animal, seek medical attention immediately. The doctor will provide wound care and prescribe medications if there is a risk for infection.

Wound Care

Swift action is essential when it comes to treating rabies. In addition to seeking medical attention right after an animal bite (especially from a bat, fox, or skunk), the wound should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly.

For post-bite first aid, the WHO recommends flushing and washing the wound for a minimum of 15 minutes. This cleaning should include use of soap and water, detergent, and/or a povidone-iodine solution.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), animal-based research has shown that thorough wound cleansing alone may significantly reduce the likelihood of developing rabies. Once symptoms set in, however, death from respiratory failure usually occurs within seven days—even if treatment is given.

It should be noted that infection by bats is now the most common source of rabies-related human deaths in the United States. The rabies virus may also be spread by such animals as foxes, skunks, and raccoons. Across the globe, 99 percent of human rabies cases result from virus transmission by domestic dogs.

Keep in mind that, regardless of rabies risk, animal bites can cause serious damage when the wound is severe. For example, bites may lead to local and/or systemic infection, as well as laceration of the nerves or tendons. Therefore, it’s always important to seek medical treatment after suffering any type of animal bite.

Post-Exposure Prophylaxis

Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is the only treatment strategy known to prevent rabies-related deaths. This treatment includes extensive washing and local treatment of the wound followed by a course of a potent and effective rabies vaccine.

When given in time, PEP can stop the rabies virus from entering the central nervous system and, in turn, prevent the onset of rabies symptoms. To date, no one in the United States has developed rabies when given the vaccine promptly and appropriately, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In addition to PEP, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. You may require a tetanus shot depending on the date of your last tetanus shot.

The Rabies Vaccine

Like all vaccines, rabies vaccines contain a weakened form of the virus that is incapable of causing disease or reproducing. In response to the vaccine, your body produces antibodies that target and kill the rabies virus.

Because all human rabies vaccines are inactivated, it’s impossible to develop rabies from receiving the vaccine. Each vaccine undergoes a series of rigorous quality-control tests, which include tests of potency, toxicity, safety, and sterility.

Dosing

Typically given in a set schedule of five doses over the course of 28 days (beginning with the day of exposure), the rabies vaccine is administered by injection. In addition, most people also receive a treatment called human rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG) unless they have been previously vaccinated or are receiving pre-exposure rabies vaccines. Also administered by injection, HRIG is given the day the animal bite occurred.

Side Effects

Although adverse reactions to rabies vaccine and HRIG aren’t common, they may trigger certain minor reactions at the injection site. These include:

  • pain
  • redness
  • swelling 
  • itching

In rare cases, patients may experience symptoms like headache, nausea, abdominal pain, muscle aches, and dizziness.

Before receiving the rabies vaccine, let your doctor if you’ve ever had a serious allergic reaction to a dose of rabies vaccine. You should also tell your doctor if you have any severe allergies, or if you have a weakened immune system due to a chronic condition or use of certain medication (such as steroids).

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources