Q fever

Q fever is a bacterial infection you can catch from infected farm animals such as sheep, cattle and goats. It's usually harmless but can cause serious problems in some people.

Symptoms of Q fever

Q fever doesn't always cause symptoms. Some people get flu-like symptoms within 2 to 3 weeks of being infected, such as:

  • high temperature (fever)
  • aching muscles
  • tiredness
  • feeling sick
  • sore throat
  • swollen glands

Symptoms of Q fever usually last up to 2 weeks.

How Q fever is spread

Q fever is most often spread to humans by close contact with infected farm animals. The bacteria can be spread by contact with:

  • afterbirth (placenta)
  • blood
  • pee
  • poo
  • hides, fur and wool

The bacteria in these products can be breathed in. You can also get Q fever from drinking unpasteurised milk (milk that hasn't been heated to kill bacteria), but this is less likely.

Although Q fever is rare, people who work closely with animals are more at risk. For example farmers, vets, stablehands and abattoir workers.

See a GP if you think you have Q fever and:

  • you're pregnant – Q fever can cause miscarriage and if it spreads to your baby it can cause serious complications, especially if you catch it early in pregnancy
  • your immune system is weakened, for example if you have had an organ transplant or you are having chemotherapy – the infection may affect your eyes or brain
  • you have heart valve disease – where one or more of your heart valves are diseased or damaged

Q fever is usually harmless but in rare cases it can lead to serious problems.

Treatment from a GP

If your GP thinks you might have Q fever, they can arrange a blood test to see if you've been infected.

If you're pregnant and you test positive for Q fever, your GP can refer you for more tests to see if your baby has been infected. This is very rare.

If your symptoms are severe or they're not getting better, your GP may prescribe a 1 or 2 week course of antibiotics.

It's important to finish the whole course of antibiotics, even if you start to feel better.

How to prevent Q fever

There is no vaccine for Q fever. If you work with animals:

Do

  • wash your hands regularly
  • clean cuts or grazes immediately and cover them with a plaster or dressing
  • wear protective clothing, such as waterproof gloves and goggles
  • ensure all animal afterbirth (placenta) is cleaned up safely

Don't

  • help animals give birth if you're pregnant
  • touch anything that may have been in contact with animal blood, poo, pee or afterbirth – such as clothes, boots or gloves
  • drink milk that hasn't been heated yet to kill bacteria (unpasteurised)
  • eat in areas where animals are kept

Important

It's especially important for pregnant women to avoid contact with sheep and lambs during the lambing season – between January and April.

Don't touch anything that might have come into contact with ewes or lambs, such as gloves or boots. Pregnant women who catch Q fever don't usually have any symptoms, so it's better to avoid any risk.

Read more about why pregnant women should avoid sheep during the lambing season.

Chronic Q fever

In a few people with Q fever, the symptoms can last for months. This is known as chronic Q fever.

Chronic Q fever sometimes leads to serious heart problems, such as endocarditis.

People with chronic Q fever may need a much longer course of antibiotics and treatment in hospital for any complications that develop.

Page last reviewed: 18/01/2018
Next review due: 18/01/2021

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