Rabies Vaccine
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Rabies Vaccine

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What Is Rabies?

Rabies is an infection caused by a virus that is almost always fatal unless it is treated before symptoms appear. It affects the central nervous system.

People usually contract rabies through a bite or scratch from an infected animal. Animals in the United States that commonly carry the virus include bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes. Dogs and cats can also carry the disease. The rabies virus is found in the saliva, brain, or nervous tissue of infected animals.

In the US, rabies in humans is rare. For example, in 2005, there was one reported case of human death due to rabies.

Rabies symptoms include:

  • Pain, tingling, or itching at the site of the bite wound or other site of viral entry
  • Stiff muscles
  • Increased production of thick saliva
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as headache, fever, fatigue, and nausea
  • Painful spasms and contractions of the throat when exposed to water (called "hydrophobia")
  • Erratic, excited, or bizarre behavior
  • Paralysis

Symptoms may not appear for weeks, or even years, after a bite.

If an animal has bitten you, immediately wash the wound with soap and water and call your doctor or seek care in an emergency room. People who may have been exposed to rabies will be treated with one dose of immune globulin and five doses of rabies vaccine over a 28-day period.

What Is the Rabies Vaccine?

The rabies vaccine is made from killed rabies virus. It is given by injection and should be stored in the refrigerator prior to administration.

Who Should Get Vaccinated and When?

There are two reasons for rabies vaccines: preventive vaccination and vaccination after exposure.

Preventive vaccination is suggested for people at high risk of exposure to rabies (eg, veterinarians, animal handlers, rabies laboratory workers, spelunkers, rabies biologics production workers). The vaccine should also be considered for people whose activities bring them into frequent contact with the rabies virus or potentially rabid animals, as well as international travelers who may come into contact with rabid animals.

Preventive vaccination is given in three doses, with the second dose given seven days after the first, and the third given 21 or 28 days after the first. People who may be repeatedly exposed to the rabies virus should be periodically tested for immunity and given booster doses as needed.

Vaccination after exposure is given to anyone who has been bitten by an animal or was otherwise exposed to rabies. This regimen includes five doses of rabies vaccine—one immediately and four more doses on the third, seventh, fourteenth, and twenty-eighth days. Also, a shot of rabies immune globulin should be given along with the first dose of vaccine. For people who have been previously vaccinated, two doses of the vaccine are given, one immediately and another on the third day. Rabies immune globulin is not needed for those previously vaccinated.

What Are the Risks Associated With the Rabies Vaccine?

Like any vaccine, the rabies vaccine is capable of causing serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions, but the risk of serious harm or death is extremely small.

The most commonly reported problems associated with the rabies vaccine are mild to moderate and include:

  • Soreness, redness, swelling, or itching around the injection site
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Muscle aches
  • Dizziness
  • Hives
  • Pain in the joints
  • Fever

Rarely, an illness resembling Guillain-Barre syndrome and other nervous system disorders have been reported in association with the vaccine.

Who Should Not Get Vaccinated?

Talk with your doctor before getting vaccinated if you:

  • Had a life-threatening allergic reaction to a previous dose of rabies vaccine or one of its components
  • Have a weakened immune system due to a disease, drugs, or cancer

Also, if you are moderately or severely ill, wait until you recover before getting a preventive vaccine. But, if you have been exposed to the rabies virus, get the vaccine regardless of any other illness you may have.

What Other Ways Can Rabies Be Prevented Besides Vaccination?

Here ares some ways to prevent rabies:

  • Vaccinate house pets.
  • Avoid contact with wild animals.
  • Do not touch any wild animal, even if it appears to be dead.
  • Seal basement, porch, and attic openings to prevent an animal from entering your home.
  • Report strangely acting or sick animals to local animal control authorities.

Rabies symptoms in animals may include erratic behavior (often overly aggressive or vicious) or disorientation (eg, nocturnal animals such as a bat or fox appearing in daylight).

What Happens in the Event of an Outbreak?

In the event of a rabies outbreak, authorities will identify and control the source of the outbreak. They will also increase their surveillance of wild and domestic animals. Steps will be taken to increase animal rabies vaccination rates and provide safety education to the public.


Vaccine and Immunizations
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

World Health Organization


Rabies. EBSCO Publishing Dynamed website. Available at: http://dynaweb.ebscohost.com/Detail.aspx?id=114081sid=8a3eb797-1196-479d-acff-5ce7f1f31541@SRCSM1. Accessed March 3, 2008.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nip/ACIP/slides/oct06/02_Rabies/rabies-3-rupprecht-manning.pdf . Accessed February 2, 2007.

Last reviewed February 2008 by David Horn, MD, FACP

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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