Scientists Say: Rabies

This virus infects mammals and causes drooling, confusion and death


This dog is drooling so much because it has rabies.

CDC/Wikimedia Commons

Rabies (noun, “RAY-bees”)

This is a disease caused by the rabies virus. The virus infects mammals such as bats, dogs and people. It can also infect birds. The virus is spread through the saliva of an infected animal. The infected animal may scratch or bite another. Or its saliva may get into a healthy animal’s nose or eyes. The virus then infects the brain and nerves of the host.

The first signs that a person is infected with rabies include a fever or headache. But as the virus spreads through the brain and spine, these tissues become inflamed. The person may become very anxious and confused, or they might be unable to move. People and animals that are infected with rabies can have trouble swallowing and become terrified of water. They also can start drooling or foaming at the mouth. When animals or people become confused and very active, they may end up dying of a heart attack. Eventually the virus kills cells in the brain, which leads to death.

Rabies vaccines are available for animals and people. Pets such as dogs and cats get vaccinated regularly so that their bodies can fight off the virus if they encounter it. But people generally only get the vaccine when they are bitten by a rabid animal. If someone infected with rabies does not get the vaccine within 10 days of exposure to the virus, they almost always die.

Very few people in the United States get infected with rabies. But in other countries, it’s often a different story. Rabies — usually transmitted by dogs — kills an estimated 59,000 people a year. Most of those deaths occur in countries such as India, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a sentence

Rabies is usually a death sentence — except for one group of people in Peru who seem to survive rabid bat bites.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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