Rabies in humans
How people contract the rabies virus, what to do if you’re exposed to the virus and what you should know about the rabies vaccine.
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You can become infected with the rabies virus if an infected animal bites you or the infected saliva of an animal gets into your mouth, nose, eyes or an open cut, sore or wound.
Rabies can’t be transmitted through contact with the blood, urine or feces of an infected animal. Talk to your family doctor or local health unit if you’re exposed because you could still be at risk of other diseases and parasites.
If you’re exposed to rabies, you need to get treatment right away. If left untreated, the rabies virus is almost always fatal.
If you’re exposed to rabies
If you’re exposed to the saliva of a potentially rabid animal:
- wash the bite or scratch with soap and warm water immediately (use hand sanitizer if there’s no soap or water nearby)
- call your family doctor or go to the nearest hospital for treatment right away
- report the bite or scratch to your local public health unit
Symptoms of rabies in humans
In adults, signs of rabies will usually appear within 2 to 8 weeks of exposure. In rare cases, it can take one year or longer for signs to appear but this depends on where you were bitten, how bad the bite was and the strain of rabies.
Early symptoms of rabies may include:
- numbness around the site of a bite
- feeling sick
Later symptoms of rabies may include:
- itchiness around the site of the bite (even after it’s healed)
- muscle spasms
- fear of air gusts (aerophobia)
- fear of water (hydrophobia)
- difficulty breathing
Once symptoms of rabies begin to appear, the disease is almost always fatal.
The rabies vaccine
Rabies can be treated with a vaccine if you seek treatment before symptoms of infection with the virus appear. Once symptoms appear, it’s too late for treatment.
You will get five shots over 14 days and treatment is much less painful today than in the past.
If you’re exposed to rabies you will receive:
- a shot containing antibodies that help destroy the rabies virus which is given at the site of the wound
- four shots of rabies vaccine in your upper arm, given over 14 days
Post-exposure treatment is covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP).
If you think you’re likely to be exposed to the rabies virus because of the kind of work or activities you are involved in, talk to your healthcare provider about pre-exposure rabies vaccinations.
You can get the rabies vaccine from your family doctor or at a travel clinic. Preventive treatment isn’t covered by OHIP so you’ll have to pay for it out-of-pocket. Your doctor can tell you how much it will cost.
Preventive rabies vaccination is recommended for people who:
- plan to travel to a high-risk area
- work in high-risk jobs such as
- wildlife rehabilitators
You will get three shots over 21 days. The length of time you are immune to rabies varies from person to person. If you continue to be at higher risk of exposure to the virus over time, you’ll need to get your immunity checked every 1-2 years in case you need booster shots.
Animals who carry the rabies virus
Bats, skunks, foxes and raccoons are the most common carriers of the rabies virus in Canada.
In Ontario, bats pose the biggest threat of transmitting rabies to humans because unlike other animals, they can’t be vaccinated by dropping baits containing the vaccine in urban, forested rural or agricultural areas.
Household pets can also carry the rabies virus. One infected cat or dog can expose many people to the virus.
In Ontario, you’re required, by law, to make sure your pets are up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations.
Pets from other countries or parts of Canada may be at higher risk of being exposed to rabies before arriving in Ontario.
Learn more about rabies in pets