How Rabies Is Treated

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Rabies is rare in humans, particularly in the United States. In fact, only 23 cases were reported from 2008 to 2017. The most common way for a human to be exposed to this life-threatening virus is through an animal bite.

Bats are the most common source of rabies-related human deaths in the United States. Across the globe, over 90 percent of human rabies cases result from virus transmission by domestic dogs.

If you or someone you know is exposed to rabies, prompt, effective treatment can save your life. If left untreated, the virus triggers deadly inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

This article outlines proper wound care for an animal bite, along with the steps your healthcare provider will take to minimize your risk of contracting rabies.

Wound Care

Rabies is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal. Always wash your hands after being licked by an animal. Animal bites, though, require immediate medical attention. This is even more important if the bite comes from a wild animal, like a bat, raccoon, fox, or skunk.

Swift action is essential when it comes to treating rabies. If you're bitten by an animal, the first step is to clean the wound immediately and thoroughly.

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 and can damage nerves or tendons. Therefore, it’s always important to seek medical treatment after suffering any type of animal bite.

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.

Post-Exposure Prophylaxis

Animal bites require fast, effective treatment, especially if you are unable to confirm that the animal is up to date on its rabies shots. If there's even a small risk of the animal being rabid, your healthcare provider will take steps to protect you against the virus — a protocol known as post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP.

PEP not only includes extensive washing and local treatment of the wound, but also a dose of rabies vaccine. If you've never received a rabies vaccine, you'll also be given a dose of antibodies called human rabies immune globulin (HRIG). These injections are given as soon as possible after the bite.

When used in time, it is the only treatment strategy known to prevent rabies-related deaths.

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. Your healthcare provider may also prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection. You may also require a tetanus shot, depending on the date of your last one.

Vaccination

Vaccines for rabies prevention
Verywell / Emily Roberts

The only way to confirm that an animal does not have rabies is to verify vaccination records or euthanize the animal and test its brain tissue. If you are unable to locate the animal that bit you, you'll need to be given additional doses of vaccine to prevent rabies.

The standard dosing schedule for the rabies vaccine is four doses, given over the course of 14 days. The first dose is given as soon as possible as part of the PEP protocol.

The rabies vaccine, like others, contains a weakened form of the virus. It is incapable of reproducing or causing disease. You won't get sick from the rabies vaccine. Instead, your body will respond to the shot by producing antibodies that target and kill the rabies virus.

Side Effects

Adverse reactions to rabies vaccine and HRIG aren’t common, but they can happen. Minor reactions at the injection site can 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

Summary

Rabies is a deadly condition that is transmitted through contact with the saliva of infected animals. In order to prevent getting sick, it's important to seek care right away if you are bitten by an animal, especially if you cannot verify that they're current on their rabies shots.

There is no cure for rabies. Your healthcare provider will take immediate steps to protect you against developing rabies, including providing post-exposure prophylaxis and, if needed, a course of additional shots of the rabies vaccine.

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.
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11 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.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bats Lead in U.S. Rabies Risk.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies around the World.

  4. World Health Organization. Rabies.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Rabies Immune Globulin.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies Postexposure Prophylaxis (PEP).

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies: Diagnosis in animals and humans.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies Vaccine Information Statement.

  9. World Health Organization. WHO announces new rabies recommendations.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rabies VIS. Rabies vacccine: What you need to know.

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

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