Rabies is a virus caused by the bite or scratch of an infected animal, and is usually fatal once rabies symptoms appear. Rabies treatment is very effective, but you must receive it as soon as possible. Rabies is rare in the UK but common around the world, so rabies prevention is important if you are travelling in a risk country.

Risk areas
Asia, Africa, and Central and South America
Deaths a year
Survival rates
Nearly 100% with treatment, fatal without
Children affected
40% of cases
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01. Transmission of rabies

You are at risk of contracting rabies if you are bitten or scratched by an infected animal.

Animal saliva can also cause rabies if an animal licks an open wound or their saliva gets into your mouth or eyes, but this is uncommon.

All mammals can cause rabies, but animals with the greatest risk include dogs, bats, raccoons, foxes, jackals, cats and mongooses.

Dogs are responsible for the transmission of rabies in 99% of cases, so it is important you do not approach or touch stray dogs in risk countries.

You cannot get rabies from being around someone who is infected by the disease.

02. Risk of rabies by country

The rabies virus is present on all continents, except Antarctica, and occurs in more than 150 countries.

The risk of rabies transmission is highest in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, especially in rural areas where stray dogs are unlikely to have been vaccinated.

The rabies risk by country varies, but Africa and Asia are the two continents where most cases occur, including 95% of rabies deaths worldwide.

In the Americas, bats now carry the biggest rabies threat. In Australia and Western Europe, the threat of rabies transmission from bats is also increasing.

A small number of bats carry the rabies virus in the UK, but there has only been one death caused by bats infecting humans with rabies here since 1946.

All other cases of rabies, that have occurred in the UK, have been in British travellers who had been infected abroad.

It is important to know that outbreaks can occur anywhere in the world. This means that the rabies risk areas change.

Check if the country you are travelling to has a risk of rabies through the search bar below.

03. Symptoms of rabies

Once rabies symptoms appear, the disease is almost always fatal. However, rabies treatment received before symptoms appear is almost always 100% effective, so you must seek help quickly.

Without treatment, the early symptoms of rabies will usually develop after three to 12 weeks, which is known as the rabies incubation period, but signs of rabies can start sooner or much later than this.

Rabies symptoms can include:

  • fever

  • headache

  • anxiety

  • discomfort at the site of the bite

  • confusion 

  • aggressive behaviour

  • hallucinations

  • excess saliva

  • frothing at the mouth

  • muscle spasms

  • difficulty swallowing and breathing

If you do not receive prompt rabies treatment, you can become seriously ill, leading to paralysis, coma and death. Therefore, it is recommended that you take precautions and check if you need the vaccine.

04. Diagnosis of rabies

If you have been bitten or scratched by an animal while travelling in an area that has a rabies risk, you should see a doctor for a prompt diagnosis.

Rabies diagnosis usually involves several tests. The doctors will usually need to take samples of your saliva, skin, blood and fluid from your spine.

The rabies virus can cause your brain to become swollen, so scans of your head can also be carried out to help your doctor make a diagnosis.

In some cases, depending on where you are in the world, the infected animal you had contact with may be tested for rabies too. This can help doctors decide how great your rabies risk is, if you are yet to show rabies symptoms.

05. Treatment of rabies

There is no rabies cure, however, there are ways of effectively treating the disease if you see a doctor as soon as possible, ideally within a few hours of becoming infected.

If you do not seek rabies treatment until after symptoms appear, your chances of surviving the disease are very low.

If you are bitten, scratched or licked by an animal in an area with a rabies risk you should:

  • immediately clean the wound with running water

  • clean the wound with an alcohol or iodine based disinfectant

  • apply a simple dressing if possible

  • go and see a doctor as soon as possible

You should not wait until you return to the UK to seek medical help.

It is a good idea to keep a list of important telephone numbers with you when travelling abroad, including who you can contact for medical treatment.

In hospital, your rabies treatment may include further washing of the wound and a booster course of the rabies vaccine, if you have been vaccinated, or a full course if you have not.

You may also be given a medicine that can provide immediate, but short-term, protection if there is a significant chance you have been infected. This is known as rabies immunoglobulin.

In cases where rabies treatment has been delayed too long, treatment will focus on making the person as comfortable as possible before they die.

06. Prevention of rabies

There are many things you can do to decrease your risk of rabies transmission, including avoiding contact with infected animals and getting vaccinated.

If you need to get the rabies vaccine, you can book a vaccination appointment online today.

If you are unsure if the yellow fever vaccine is right for you, book a free telephone consultation to speak to one of our prescribing nurses who can give you a personal recommendation based on your health and travel plans.

For effective rabies prevention while travelling in risk areas, it is recommended that you:

  • check if you need the rabies vaccine

  • learn about rabies so you can spot signs

  • do not approach any animals

  • do not pick up ill or unusually tame animals or offer food 

  • do not attract stray animals by being careless with litter

  • are aware of animals when doing outdoor activities

  • avoid touching dead animals

  • keep emergency contact details with you at all times

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Content reviewed by

Anne Marie Major, Independent Nurse Prescriber
24 June 2019