Introduction 

Q fever is an infection caused by Coxiella burnetii (C. burnetii) bacteria.

The infection is carried by animals, most commonly sheep, cattle and goats.

Q fever in humans is unusual in the UK, but more common elsewhere, including in some European countries.

Q fever causes flu-like symptoms, such as a high temperature, muscle pain and headaches.

Read more about the symptoms of Q fever

How Q fever is transmitted

Q fever can be spread to humans from livestock, such as sheep, cows and goats.

People most at risk of infection are those who work closely with livestock such as:

  • farmers
  • stablehands
  • abattoir workers
  • meat packers
  • veterinarians

Coxiella burnetii bacteria are present in the afterbirth, birth fluids, milk, urine and faeces of infected animals.

You can become infected by breathing in contaminated dust, or by coming into contact with the placenta or amniotic fluid of an infected animal.  

Read more about the causes of Q fever.

Diagnosing Q fever

Q fever is usually diagnosed with a blood test.

If Coxiella burnetii bacteria enter your blood, your immune system (the body’s natural defence) will produce a particular antibody (protein) to kill them. These antibodies should show up in your blood two to three weeks after you have been infected.

Treating Q fever

Q fever usually lasts for about two weeks and gets better without treatment. You may need antibiotics if your symptoms are severe or if they don't improve after a few weeks.

Less commonly, the symptoms of Q fever can last six months or longer. In such cases, you may need to take antibiotics for several years to prevent the infection reoccurring.

Read more about treating Q fever.

Vaccination

A vaccine for Q fever isn’t available in the UK. A vaccine has been produced in Australia, but has not been licensed for use in this country.  

However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is working with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to determine whether a routine vaccination should be made available to people in high-risk occupations (see above).

Read more about preventing Q fever.

Further information:

Why should pregnant women avoid sheep during the lambing season?
What infections can animals pass to people?
How can I avoid catching an infection from an animal?
What should I do if an animal bites me?  




Q fever is an infection that can be passed from animals to humans 

How common is Q fever?

Around 50 cases of Q fever are reported in the UK each year. However, the actual number of cases may be higher because the symptoms can be mild and easily mistaken for flu.

Although Q fever can occur at any time of year, the number of cases reported in humans tends to peak during lambing season (January to April).

Page last reviewed: 04/03/2013

Next review due: 04/03/2015