What Is Rabies?
Rabies is an infection caused by a virus. People get rabies through a bite or a scratch from an infected animal. Wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes are a common source of the virus in the United States. In other parts of the world, the virus is carried by unvaccinated dogs.
Symptoms may not appear for weeks or months. A person may have:
- Flu-like symptoms, such as headache, fever, and tiredness
- Pain, tingling, or itching at the site of the bite or scratch
- Problems sleeping
- Problems with thinking
- Unusual behavior
- Seeing or sensing things that are not based in reality
This virus is deadly. Treatment is needed right away.
What Is the Rabies Vaccine?
The vaccine is made of inactivated rabies virus. It is given as a series of shots in the arm in adults or in the thigh in children.
Who Should Get Vaccinated and When?
There are two reasons someone should get the rabies vaccines:
- Pre-exposure protection
- Post-exposure protection
This is for people at high risk of exposure to rabies, such as:
- Veterinarians and animal handlers
- People who explore caves
- Rabies lab workers
- Travelers who may come in contact with rabid animals
People who may be exposed to the virus a lot should be tested for immunity on a periodic basis. Booster doses may be needed.
This vaccine is given to anyone who has been bitten by an animal or was exposed to rabies. The vaccine is given in 4 doses. One dose is given right away. Three more doses are given on the third, seventh, and fourteenth days. People with immune system problems may need a fifth dose on day 28.
A shot of rabies-specific immune globulin (RIG) should be given along with the first dose. If possible, the full dose should be given at the site of the wound and nearby area. Any RIG that is left will be given into a muscle at a distant site from the vaccinated area.
A person who has been previously vaccinated for rabies should get 2 doses of the vaccine and does not need RIG.
What Are the Risks Associated With the Rabies Vaccine?
Common problems are:
- A sore arm
- Redness, swelling, or itching at the site of the shot
- Belly pain
- Muscle aches
- Pain in the joints
Who Should Not Get Vaccinated?
Talk with your doctor before being vaccinated if you:
- Had a severe allergic reaction to a previous dose of rabies vaccine
- Have any severe, life-threatening allergies
- Have a weakened immune system
- Have a severe illness
The vaccine may be postponed in someone who needs it for pre-exposure protection.
Anyone who has been exposed to rabies will need the vaccine right away.
What Other Ways Can Rabies Be Prevented Besides Vaccination?
To lower the risk of rabies:
- Vaccinate house pets.
- Do not come in contact with wild animals.
- Do not touch any wild animal, even if it appears to be dead.
- Seal basement, porch, and attic openings. This will prevent an animal from getting into your home.
- Report animals that act strangely or look sick to your local animal control.
What Happens in the Event of an Outbreak?
In the event of an outbreak, authorities will identify and control the source of the outbreak. They will increase how often they monitor wild and domestic animals. Steps will be taken to increase animal rabies vaccination rates. Safety education will be given to the public.
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
World Health Organization
Rabies. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/rabies. Accessed July 9, 2021.
Rabies. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/rabies. Accessed July 9, 2021.
Rabies immune globulin. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/drug-monograph/rabies-immune-globulin. Accessed July 9, 2021.
Rabies vaccine. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/drug-monograph/rabies-vaccine. Accessed July 9, 2021.
Rabies VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/rabies.html. Accessed July 9, 2021.
Last reviewed July 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David L. Horn, MD, FACP Last Updated: 7/12/2021