What is rabies?
Rabies is a serious disease caused by a virus carried in the saliva of infected domestic and wild mammals, and is usually spread through a bite. There may not be any symptoms for weeks or even years after the bite, but rabies can cause pain, fatigue, headache, fever and irritability. If untreated, symptoms can progress to confusion, hallucinations, insomnia, seizures and paralysis. Rabies is always fatal in humans if left untreated.
Although rabies cases are rare in the United States, they are still common in other parts of the world such as Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.
What is the rabies vaccine?
The rabies vaccine is made from inactivated rabies virus and can protect those at increased risk of rabies exposure, but it can also prevent the disease if it is given to a person after exposure to the virus.
If you've been bitten by an animal and potentially exposed to rabies, clean the wound and seek medical attention to determine whether you should get the rabies vaccine. If a vaccination is required and you have not previously had the rabies vaccine, four doses are given (immediately, then on days 3, 7 and 14). If you've been vaccinated and are exposed to rabies, you only need two doses (immediately and day 3). An additional shot of Rabies Immune Globulin may also be necessary.
For people traveling to rabies-prevalent areas, the three-dose vaccine series must be completed before travel.
Who should get the rabies vaccine?
- People who are likely to come in contact with rabies virus or with rabid animals
- Travelers who plan to spend time outdoors where rabies is common
- Veterinarians and animal control or wildlife workers
Who should not get the rabies vaccine?
- Those with moderate or severe illness (for example, a severe cold, flu or infection of the sinuses or lungs)
- Those who previously had a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction to the vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine
- Those with a weakened immune system should talk with a doctor before receiving the vaccine. This may apply to several diseases and conditions, including:
- HIV/AIDS or another disease that affects the immune system
- Those receiving long-term steroid treatment (such as prednisone)
- Cancer or cancer treatment
What are the side effects of the rabies vaccine?
- Soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given
- Headache, nausea, abdominal pain, muscle aches and dizziness
- Hives, pain in the joints and fever
Severe problems (Rare):
- Permanent brain damage
- Serious allergic reactions, with symptoms including:
- Difficulty breathing
- Pale skin
- Fast heartbeat
Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help ease pain and reduce fever.
It is extremely rare for these vaccines to cause serious harm or death. If the person getting the vaccine has a serious reaction, call the doctor or seek immediate medical attention.
The rabies vaccine is available at:
Walgreens Pharmacy. Ages vary by state.
If you believe you have a medical emergency, please call 911.
Call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at 800-232-4636 or visit www.cdc.gov/vaccines for more vaccine information.
Hamborsky J, Kroger A, Wolfe S, eds. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases. 13th ed., second printing. Washington, DC: Public Health Foundation, 2015.
Vaccine Information Statement: Rabies Vaccine (What You Need to Know). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 10/6/2009. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/rabies.pdf. Accessed April 2016.
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