Animal and human bites - Complications 

Complications of bites 

The main complication that can occur from animal or human bites is infection.

Infected bites rarely cause serious problems, as long as they're treated promptly with antibiotics.

However, they can lead to more serious secondary infections, including: 

Signs of a serious secondary infection include having a high temperature (fever) of or above 38°C (100.4°F) or feeling unwell.

Contact your GP immediately if you think you may be developing a more serious secondary infection. If this isn't possible, you can telephone NHS 111 or your local out-of-hours service for advice.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

It's estimated that around 1 in 4 children who require hospital treatment for a severe dog bite (and 1 in 10 who require treatment for a moderate dog bite) will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. In children, this usually takes the form of repeated nightmares and becoming very nervous and frightened around dogs.

Other symptoms of PTSD in children may include:

  • refusing to go outside on their own 
  • becoming unusually shy or aggressive with friends and family 
  • a lack of interest in games or school activities
  • fear of the dark
  • fear of being left alone

PTSD may get better by itself within a couple of months. However, if the symptoms persist or get worse, your child may require treatment.

Treatment options for PTSD in children include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is a type of talking therapy that aims to change patterns of negative thinking or behaviours.

CBT for PTSD often focuses on helping the child realise that while fear and distress are very real and upsetting emotions, it's possible to control them.

You should never force your child to be in close contact with a dog in an attempt to overcome their fears, if they are obviously distressed. This could make the problem worse.

Read more about treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Tetanus

Tetanus is a rare but serious bacterial infection that usually occurs when a flesh wound becomes contaminated.

It's possible to catch tetanus from an animal or human bite. The bite itself doesn't cause tetanus, but the break in the skin can allow tetanus bacteria (Clostridium tetani) to enter your body.

The most common symptom of tetanus is stiffness in your jaw muscles (sometimes known as lockjaw), which can make it difficult to open your mouth. Muscle stiffness and spasms can also spread to other parts of your body.

The symptoms of tetanus can develop between 4 and 21 days after the infection has taken place (known as the incubation period).

You may be given tetanus immunoglobulin (TIG) if you have a bite that's at risk of being infected by tetanus. TIG is medication that contains antibodies (infection-fighting proteins). The antibodies neutralise the toxins produced by the bacteria that cause Clostridium tetani.

TIG is injected into a muscle and provides immediate, short-term protection against tetanus.

Read more about how to treat tetanus.

Immunisation is the best way to prevent the condition. The complete course of the tetanus vaccination is five doses. In the UK, all children are routinely offered the tetanus vaccination as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.

As an adult, if you're unsure about whether or not you've been fully immunised against tetanus, speak to your GP or practice nurse. They'll be able to advise you about having a booster injection.

Rabies

Rabies is a potentially fatal infection of the nervous system. You can catch it if you're bitten by an infected animal. In rare cases, rabies can also be caught if an infected animal licks an open wound, such as a scratch or abrasion.

Most cases of rabies occur in Africa, Asia (particularly India) and central and southern America. Some cases have been reported in Europe  mostly in Eastern Europe.

If you’re bitten by any animal while in these areas, you should seek medical advice as soon as possible because you  may need urgent treatment, including vaccination.

You may need immunisation for rabies if you're visiting these areas or if your job involves coming into contact with animals that have been imported from abroad.

Read more about the rabies vaccination and who should have it.

It was thought that rabies had been wiped out in all animals in the UK. However, some bats have been found to carry the disease. If you're bitten by a bat in the UK, your bite should be immediately assessed and, as a matter of urgency, you should be given the rabies treatment to prevent rabies developing. The same advice applies if you've been bitten by an animal while abroad in a country where rabies is widespread.

Treatment to prevent rabies developing after a bite is known as post-exposure prophylaxis. You'll be given one dose of rabies immunoglobulin (a blood product that contains antibodies against the disease) and five doses of the rabies vaccine. If exposure to rabies is uncertain, the vaccination on its own may be considered.

Read more about how to prevent bites.


Page last reviewed: 28/03/2014

Next review due: 28/03/2016

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Rabies

Rabies is a very serious viral infection that you can get if you're bitten by an infected animal and you haven't been vaccinated