Rabies is caused by a virus that affects the nervous system. It is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals. People usually become infected after being bitten by an infected animal, although any contact with the saliva of an infected animal (dead or alive) can lead to infection if exposed to an open wound or the nose, eyes or mouth.
Two types of rabies vaccines are available, and both are considered safe and effective. The vaccine is given in a series of three to five shots. It is highly recommended that people who work with animals (vets, animal handlers and lab workers), as well as people who deal with potentially rabid animals (such as bats, raccoons, skunks, cats and dogs) get the shots. Travelers who will be around potentially rabid dogs in Asia, Africa, Central and South America also should get the vaccine. The vaccine is safe for pregnant women.
The vaccine is not recommended for routine use by the general public.
Rabies affects the nervous system (the spinal chord and the brain), and the symptoms can start out much like those of the flu: Fever, headache and nausea. The symptoms can progress to anxiety, hallucinations, agitation and abnormal behavior. Because the disease is almost always fatal, it is extremely important to get to a doctor as soon as symptoms appear.
You can be treated and vaccinated after exposure to the virus. Treatment after exposure requires a dose of rabies immune globulin and four more shots of the vaccine. Booster vaccinations are recommended for those who are continually at high risk.
People who get the vaccine usually experience only mild side effects such as redness and soreness in the injection area, while a few may have fever, headache and dizziness. In very rare cases, some may experience difficulty breathing.
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