Rabies rarely affects humans in the United States. But for people who contract the virus, it is almost always fatal without immediate medical attention.
This dangerous virus, usually transmitted by animal bites and scratches, appears to attack the central nervous system William R DodgeMD, emergency medicine physician with Providence Mission Hospital In Mission Viejo, California.
Once the virus reaches your brain, it causes neurological symptoms, such as confusion, hallucinations, and seizures, followed by coma and eventually death.
That’s why you’ll want to call your doctor right away if you’ve been bitten or scratched by a wild animal or unvaccinated pet, says Dodge, even if you’re not sure they have rabies.
Here’s the good news: The rabies vaccine can protect you from the virus. But you’ll usually get this vaccine after exposure to the virus, as opposed to the preventive vaccines you get before you might have a condition.
Below, find answers to seven common questions about the rabies vaccine, including why it’s important and how to determine when it’s needed.
“Getting a rabies vaccine immediately after a bite from an animal that may have rabies can stimulate your body’s resistance to the virus,” says Dodge.
Dodge explains that the rabies vaccine stimulates your immune system to produce antibodies. These special proteins can recognize and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses.
The rabies vaccine may prevent you from contracting the virus if you receive it as soon as possible – ideally Within one to two days from exposure.
The incubation period for the rabies virus usually ranges from a few days to several months. During the incubation period, you will not experience symptoms because the virus has not yet reached your brain. Once the virus reaches your brain and symptoms develop, the vaccine can no longer provide protection.
for your knowledge
Adults and older children will receive the rabies vaccine into the shoulder muscle, while young children and infants will receive an injection into the thigh muscle.
Your pets may get a rabies booster dose annually or one every few years. But humans often need multiple injections for complete protection.
The number of doses you will need depends on two things: whether you have received the rabies vaccine in the past and the type of exposure for which you are being treated.
Dodge stresses that it’s essential to get medical attention as soon as possible after being bitten by an animal that could have rabies, even if you recently received a rabies booster vaccine.
“Depending on your risk of coming into contact with an animal with rabies in the future, your doctor may recommend getting another booster dose within 3 years after your first two doses,” says Dodge.
The most common side effects of the rabies vaccine include:
- Pain at the injection site
- skin discoloration
- Hardening, hardening, or thickening of the skin at the injection site
These mild local reactions usually go away within a few days. You can usually treat them with over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
You may also experience:
If you experience any of these symptoms, Dodge advises calling your doctor. They can monitor your symptoms and provide more guidance about relief options.
Keep in mind that if you have been exposed to rabies, you will need to get vaccinated even if you are immunocompromised, pregnant, breast-feeding or breastfeeding, or have existing health conditions. This is because rabies is almost always fatal.
Before being vaccinated, tell your doctor if you have ever had an allergic reaction to the vaccine. They can monitor you for signs of an allergic reaction after you receive the rabies vaccine.
Unlike most other vaccines, you usually don’t receive the rabies vaccine until after you have been exposed to, or likely to have been, the virus. You can also choose to get vaccinated if you plan to travel to countries where rabies is endemic, or found regularly.
Any mammal can carry rabies, including wild animals and unvaccinated pets, such as:
- the cats
The virus lives in saliva, brain and nervous system tissues. So an animal with rabies doesn’t have to bite you to transmit the virus. You can catch the virus from scratch, or even lick it.
If you have any doubts about the vaccination status of an animal, you should assume that it may have rabies and contact your veterinarian immediately if the animal:
- Scratches you, even if the scratch doesn’t bleed
- Nibbles exposed skin
- It bites you even if it doesn’t bleed
- licks your skin
You may have been in contact with an animal that could have rabies, but you don’t know for sure if that animal has bitten you. For example, you might wake up to find a bat in your bedroom. In this case, you should assume that it bit you and call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately.
You will usually only receive a preventative rabies vaccine if you:
- Working with or interacting with animals frequently – examples include veterinarians, animal control officers, and animal quarantine facility staff
- Planning to spend a month or more in an area of the world where rabies is common
- Plan to participate in activities that may expose you to animals with rabies, such as hiking in the wild, in areas where rabies is common.
The rabies vaccine does not provide lifelong protection. Protection can continue anywhere from 6 months to 2 yearsdepending on the number of doses you have taken.
For example, if you get two doses of the rabies vaccine as a precaution, you will need a booster dose in two years if you are still at risk of getting rabies.
If you get all four doses of the vaccine after exposure to rabies, you will need to be vaccinated again if you are exposed to the virus again.
The cost of the rabies vaccine is almost out of pocket
When medically necessary — after a stray dog or a wild squirrel, for example — health insurance will usually cover the vaccine.
Your health insurance provider may not cover pre-exposure preventive vaccines. These are generally considered optional and not medically necessary.
If you think you have been exposed to rabies, your best option is to head to the nearest emergency room (ER).
Many primary and urgent care clinics do not offer this vaccine. Therefore, if you make an appointment with your regular doctor and they recommend the rabies vaccination, you will usually be sent to the emergency room anyway.
If you want to get the vaccine as a precaution, you can make an appointment at some pharmacies, including some CVS and Walgreens locations.
Thanks to the widespread vaccination of animals, rabies has decreased significantly in the United States. But if you come across a wild or unvaccinated animal, a post-exposure rabies vaccine could save your life.
When you take the rabies vaccine at the right time, it can help your immune system to fight the virus effectively. The sooner you get it after exposure, the better your chances of protecting yourself.
Always contact your doctor immediately after receiving a scratch or bite from an animal if you do not know its vaccination status.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health, wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.