Symptoms of leptospirosis 

The symptoms of leptospirosis usually develop abruptly seven to 14 days after exposure to the leptospira bacteria.

However, it is possible for symptoms to develop from between two and 30 days after exposure.

About 90% of leptospirosis infections only cause mild symptoms, including:

  • a high temperature (fever) that is usually between 38 and 40°C (100.4-104°F)
  • chills
  • sudden headaches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • muscle pain, particularly affecting the muscles in the calves and lower back
  • conjunctivitis (irritation and redness of the eyes)
  • cough 
  • a short-lived rash 

These symptoms usually resolve within five to seven days. However, in about 10% of cases people go on to experience more serious symptoms.

Severe leptospirosis

Severe leptospirosis infections are sometimes called Weil's disease. The symptoms of a severe infection usually develop one to three days after the more mild symptoms have passed.

The pattern of symptoms usually falls into one of three groups, depending on which organs have become infected:

  • the liver, kidneys and heart
  • the brain
  • the lungs

In rare cases, it is possible to experience all three groups of symptoms at the same time.

Liver, kidney and heart

If these organs are affected, you will probably experience the following symptoms:

  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • loss of appetite
  • tiredness
  • shortness of breath
  • swollen ankles, feet or hands
  • weight loss
  • muscle aches
  • nausea
  • a noticeable, painful swelling in your liver
  • a decrease in the amount of urine that you pass
  • chest pain
  • rapid and irregular heartbeat

If left untreated, your liver or kidneys may lose their ability to function. Loss of kidney function is known as kidney failure and can be fatal.

The brain

There are two ways that the brain can be affected:

Both types of brain infection cause similar symptoms, including:

  • a high temperature (fever) of 38°C (100.4°F) or above
  • nausea and vomiting
  • changes in mental state, such as confusion,
    drowsiness or disorientation
  • uncharacteristic behaviour, such as being unusually aggressive
  • seizures (fits)
  • aversion to bright lights (photophobia)
  • inability to speak
  • inability to control physical movements
  • stiff neck

If left untreated, the infection may cause brain damage and can be fatal.

The lungs

A leptospirosis infection that spreads to the lungs presents the most serious health threat because it carries a significant risk of death. This is because the bacteria damage the lung tissues, which can result in massive internal bleeding and loss of lung function.

Symptoms include:

  • a high temperature, which can be as high as 40.5°C (105°F)
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing up blood (sometimes the amount of blood coughed up is so great that a person can choke on it)

Page last reviewed: 07/11/2012

Next review due: 07/11/2014