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Overview - Rabies

Rabies is a rare but very serious infection of the brain and nerves. It's usually caught from the bite or scratch of an infected animal, most often a dog.

Rabies is found throughout the world, particularly in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.

It's not found in the UK, except in a small number of wild bats.

Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear, but treatment before this is very effective.

There's also a vaccine for people at risk of being infected.

Rabies vaccination

You should consider getting vaccinated against rabies if you're travelling to an area of the world where rabies is common and:

  • you plan to stay for a month or more, or there's unlikely to be quick access to appropriate medical care
  • you plan to do activities that could put you at increased risk of exposure to animals with rabies, such as running or cycling

Visit a GP or travel clinic if you think you may need the vaccine.

Most people will have to pay for the rabies vaccine if it's needed for protection while travelling.

Even if you have been vaccinated, you should still take precautions to avoid coming into contact with rabies if you're travelling in an area where rabies is found, and get medical advice straight away if you have been bitten or scratched.

Some people may need the rabies vaccine because they could come into contact with rabies through their work.

If you think this applies to you, speak to your employer or occupational health provider.

Find out more about the rabies vaccination

How to avoid being bitten or scratched

All mammals (including monkeys) can carry rabies, but it's most common in:

  • dogs
  • bats
  • raccoons
  • foxes
  • jackals
  • cats
  • mongooses

Animals can spread the infection if they bite or scratch you or, or in rare cases, if they lick an open wound or their saliva gets into your mouth or eyes.

Rabies is not spread through unbroken skin or between people.

While travelling in an area where rabies is a risk:

  • avoid contact with animals – some infected animals may behave strangely, but sometimes there may be no obvious signs they're infected
  • avoid touching any dead animals

If you're travelling with a child, make sure they're aware of the dangers and that they should tell you if they have been bitten, scratched or licked by an animal.

Check them for any wounds if they come into contact with an animal.

For information about areas where rabies is a risk, see:

What to do if you have been bitten or scratched

If you have been bitten or scratched by an animal in an area with a risk of rabies:

  • immediately clean the wound with running water and soap for several minutes
  • disinfect the wound with an alcohol- or iodine-based disinfectant and apply a simple dressing, if possible
  • go to the nearest medical centre, hospital or GP surgery as soon as possible and explain that you have been bitten or scratched

If this happens while you're abroad, get local medical help immediately. Do not wait until you have returned to the UK.

If you have already returned to the UK without getting medical advice, it's still a good idea to get help, even if it's been several weeks since you were bitten or scratched.

It's unlikely you have been infected with rabies, but it's best to be safe.

Post-exposure treatment is nearly 100% effective if it's started before any symptoms of rabies appear.

Treatment after a bite or scratch

If you have been bitten, scratched or licked by an animal that might have rabies, you may need specialist medical treatment to stop you getting rabies. This is called post-exposure treatment.

Post-exposure treatment involves:

  • cleaning and disinfecting the wound
  • a course of the rabies vaccine – you'll need to have 4 doses over a month if you have not been vaccinated against rabies before, or 2 doses a few days apart if you have
  • in some cases, a medicine called immunoglobulin is given into and around the wound – this provides immediate but short-term protection if there's a significant chance you have been infected

The post-exposure treatment you need may be slightly different if you have a weakened immune system.

Treatment should be started quickly, ideally within a few hours of being bitten or scratched.

But it's often safe to delay treatment until the next day if the vaccine or immunoglobulin need to be ordered in by your doctor.

Symptoms of rabies

Without treatment, the symptoms of rabies will usually start after 3 to 12 weeks, although they can start sooner or much later than this.

The first symptoms can include:

  • a high temperature
  • a headache
  • feeling anxious or generally unwell
  • in some cases, discomfort at the site of the bite

Other symptoms start a few days later, such as:

Once symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal.

In these cases, treatment will focus on making the person as comfortable as possible.

Rabies in the UK

The UK has been rabies-free since the beginning of the 20th century, except for a rabies-like virus in a small number of wild bats.

The risk of human infection from bats is thought to be low. People who regularly handle bats are most at risk.

There's only been 1 recorded case of someone catching rabies from a bat in the UK.

It's also rare for infected bats to spread rabies to other animals.

But if you find a dead or injured bat, do not touch it. Wear thick gloves if you need to move it.

If you find a dead or injured bat, you should report it and get advice by calling:

If you have been bitten by a bat in the UK, go to a GP surgery, your nearest urgent care centre or your nearest hospital to get help and start post-exposure treatment.

GOV.UK: Rabies risks from bat bites.

Page last reviewed: 09 January 2020
Next review due: 09 January 2023