How Rabies Is Treated

Table of Contents
View All
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 healthcare provider 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.

Wound Washing is Crucial

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, over 90 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 healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics. You may require a tetanus shot depending on the date of your last tetanus shot.

The Rabies Vaccine

Vaccines for rabies prevention
Verywell / Emily Roberts

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.


Typically given in a set schedule of four doses over the course of 14 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 healthcare provider if you’ve ever had a serious allergic reaction to a dose of rabies vaccine. You should also tell your healthcare provider 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).

Rabies Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Man

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do I need rabies treatment if an infected animal licks me?

    Probably not, based on updated guidelines for rabies treatment released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018. The guidelines identify three categories of rabies exposure. The first category is defined as "touching or feeding animals, licks on intact skin," but post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is recommended only for category 2 and category 3 exposure.

  • What are the side effects of rabies treatment?

    The vaccine given to prevent rabies after exposure to the virus is safe and effective for most people, with side effects that are similar to those of any vaccine:

    • Symptoms at the injection site such as soreness, redness, swelling, or itching
    • Systemic side effects including headache, nausea, stomach pain, muscle aches, or dizziness

    After booster shots, some people develop hives, joint pain, or fever. There are few known long-term complications associated with the rabies vaccine, although there have been rare reports of Guillain-Barre syndrome following the vaccine.

  • How can I protect my family and my pets from rabies?

    The American Veterinary Medication Association recommends parents and pets:

    • Have all pets that are mammals, including ferrets, livestock, and horses, vaccinated.
    • Keep cats and ferrets inside; do not allow pets that go outside to run free.
    • Don't keep wild animals as pets.
    • Never leave food, including pet food, outside, which can attract rabid animals.
    • Bat-proof houses, garages, and other structures.
    • Teach children to steer clear of animals they don't know, even those that seem tame. Rabies doesn't always cause animals to act strangely.
Was this page helpful?
10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Rabies. Updated June 11, 2019.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bats Lead in U.S. Rabies Risk. Published June 12, 2019.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies around the World. Updated June 11, 2019.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies Postexposure Prophylaxis (PEP). Updated June 11, 2019.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies Vaccine. Updated September 24, 2014.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Rabies Immune Globulin. Updated April 22, 2011.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies Vaccine Information Statement. Published October 6, 2009.

  8. World Health Organization. WHO announces new rabies recommendations. Published Jan 15, 2018.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies VIS. Rabies vacccine: What you need to know. Updated Jan 8, 2020.

  10. American Veterinary Medical Association. Rabies and your pet.

Additional Reading