If you’re heading off on holiday, you’ve probably thought about what to pack. But have you considered your vaccinations? When travelling abroad it’s important to know which tropical illnesses and health risks are common in your chosen destination. One of which is rabies.
Rabies is a serious disease that is transmitted by the bite or scratch of infected animals. Whilst it’s rare to contract the infection, the symptoms can be fatal, so it’s important to know how to protect yourself.
Here we’ll share what rabies is and how it’s spread - as well as where to get a vaccine before your trip and simple prevention techniques to practice whilst travelling.
What is rabies?
Rabies is a rare viral infection that presents very serious effects on the brain and nervous system. Once symptoms appear, it is usually fatal. However, medical treatment is normally very successful if started before symptoms appear.
Rabies is most commonly found in parts of Africa, Asia, Central America and South America. It can also be found in various other parts of the world but presents less of a risk. Rabies is not found in the UK, aside from a small number of wild bats.
How do you catch it?
Rabies is usually caught from the bite or scratch of an infected animal. In rarer cases it can also be spread through an animal’s bodily fluids such as saliva on an open wound or in your mouth or eyes. Rabies is not spread between people.
Dogs are most commonly associated with rabies however all mammals including raccoons, bats, foxes, cats and monkeys can also carry the disease.
Symptoms of rabies in humans
If left untreated, the symptoms of rabies will start to appear within 3 to 12 weeks.
The most common first symptoms are:
- A headache
- High temperature or fever
- Feeling unwell or anxious
- Soreness at the site of the bite or scratch
Additional symptoms commonly present a few days later including:
- Muscle pain and spasms
- Frothing at the mouth or excess saliva
- Confusion or aggression
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing
Where can I get the rabies vaccine?
If you are travelling to a part of the world where rabies is common, then you should consider getting a vaccination to protect yourself against the disease. This is more important for those who are staying for a longer period of time, in a remote area away from medical care and plan on doing outdoor activities either with or close by to animals.
Pre-exposure rabies vaccines may be available at your local GP surgery or a private travel vaccination clinic. It is normal to have to pay for the vaccine if it is needed for travelling. You’ll need three doses of the vaccine over the period of 28 days, each typically costing £40 to £60.
Use our Travel Vaccination Checker to find out if you need the rabies vaccine for your destination as well as how to book an appointment.
How long does the rabies vaccine last?
You’ll need to start your rabies vaccine course at least a month before your travel date. Depending on the type of vaccine you receive and your individual risk, it will then last for up to 10 years. However, booster vaccines may be required.
Booster rabies vaccines are recommended for those who continue to be at risk of exposure, even through working with animals or by visiting higher risk countries. If this is the case, you will likely be offered a booster a year after your first course of vaccinations.
Side effects and additional precautions
The rabies vaccine may cause temporary side effects for 1 to 2 days after the injection.
You can’t catch rabies from having the vaccine. It contains an inactive form of the disease.
If you have been scratched, bitten or licked by an animal that may be infected with rabies, you must:
- Clean the area with fresh, running water and soap for several minutes
- Use alcohol or an iodine-based solution to disinfect the wound as soon as possible to remove the virus
- Apply a simple dressing if possible but avoid closing the wound
- Go to a medical centre, GP surgery or hospital for medical treatment
Make sure to explain that you have been bitten or scratched. You may then be given post-exposure treatment which involves a course of the rabies vaccine and specialist medicine at the point of the wound.
Treatment is almost always 100% effective if started before symptoms appear.
Even if you have had a rabies vaccine, it is recommended to take preventative measures to protect yourself against the disease:
- Avoid contact with animals when travelling even if they don’t look unwell
- Don’t pick up animals even if they are tame
- Keep areas clean by avoiding litter and food waste that may attract animals
Rabies is a serious infection that can be fatal - however immediate treatment is very effective. Make sure to limit your risk of catching rabies by avoiding contact with animals and having a course of the rabies vaccine at least 28 days before you travel. This is especially important if you are visiting any part of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.
Heading somewhere exotic? Make sure to find out which other travel vaccinations and medicines you might need for your trip including yellow fever and malaria prevention. You can discover a full library of tips and travel advice at LloydsPharmacy including how to manage insect bite allergies abroad and the ultimate travel essentials packing list.