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What Is Rabies?

Rabies is a serious viral infection that affects the nervous system. Because the nervous system controls everything we do — from breathing to walking — rabies can make people very sick. If it's not treated the brain can swell and the person could die.

Luckily, it's rare for people to get rabies in the United States.

How Do People Get It?

A person can get rabies after being bitten or scratched by an animal that carries the rabies virus. If someone gets bitten by an animal that has rabies, quick treatment can prevent the illness.

But if a bite from a rabid animal goes untreated and the person gets rabies, it is almost always fatal. That's why it's essential to see a doctor if you get bitten by an animal, especially a wild animal.

Any mammal (including a pet) can get rabies, although it's more common in wild animals like raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes. Household pets can get a rabies vaccine to protect them and their owners. Animals that are not mammals — such as birds, fish, turtles, and snakes — cannot carry rabies.

An animal infected with rabies carries the virus in its saliva. If it bites somebody, the virus from the saliva gets into the person's body. It's also possible to get rabies from an animal scratch.

Because the rabies virus affects the nervous system, animals with rabies can act strangely. People sometimes describe animals that have rabies as "foaming at the mouth." This happens because the animal's nerves no longer work properly and it can't swallow its own saliva.

What Should I Do If I'm Bitten?

If an animal bites or scratches you, tell your parent or another adult exactly what happened. Take these steps to protect yourself if you've been bitten:

If a rabid animal bites someone, the disease won't develop right away. That's because there's an incubation period. With rabies, the incubation period may be a few days to several weeks or more. But it's essential to get treated right away to stop any possible infection from spreading and causing serious harm.

What Will the Doctor Do?

If you go to the doctor for an animal bite, he or she will want to know:

If there's a chance a bite was caused by a rabid animal, the doctor can give you shots to prevent the disease.

Protect Yourself From Rabies

The best way to protect yourself from getting infected with rabies is not to approach stray or wild animals. Don't feed or touch wild animals, even the cutest, friendliest looking ones. A rabid animal may sometimes look tired or sick, or angry and aggressive.

Protect you and your pets from rabies. Take dogs, cats, and ferrets to the vet regularly. The vet will give them shots so they can't catch rabies and give it to you or any other people or animals. Because of these vaccinations, almost no household pets have rabies.

Also, keep outdoor trash cans carefully sealed so they don't attract raccoons and other wild animals known to carry rabies.

Reviewed by: Nicole A. Green, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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