Human Rabies: Signs and Symptoms

Despite human rabies being a vaccine-preventable disease, globally around 60 000 people still die of this horrific disease each year. According to the World Health Organisation, rabies threatens about 3 billion people primarily in Asian and African countries due to a lack of vaccination programmes.

Following the recent rise in human rabies incidents in KwaZulu-Natal, authorities are now racing against time to ensure a disastrous outbreak is prevented. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to prevent contracting this deadly disease.

human rabies


Rabies is listed as a zoonotic disease. In short, this means it’s a disease that is transmitted from animal to human. The disease can be transmitted either through direct exposure to an infected animal’s saliva which in turn enters the body via a wound or through the eyes, nose or mouth, or by means of a scratch or bite from a rabid animal. Human rabies affects the brain and the body’s ability to properly regulate breathing, leading to various physical effects including difficulty in breathing and swallowing, severe muscle spasm and heart problems. In more than 99% of all human rabies cases, the virus is transmitted via rabid dogs.


Because rabies can remain in the body from a week to several months before symptoms begin to show, it’s extremely difficult to identify human rabies. Add to that the fact that no conclusive test currently exists to test a patient for rabies while they’re still alive, and the chances of recovery diminish almost entirely. Early symptoms are often mistaken for the flu, with patients presenting the following symptoms:

  • General weakness and discomfort.
  • Body pain.
  • Tingling in extremities.
  • Itching around the site of infection.
  • Fever and/or chills.
  • Irritability (in some cases).

Gradually, as the virus progresses, the person will begin to show more severe symptoms:

  • High fever.
  • Extreme agitation and aggressive behaviour.
  • Muscle spasms which later develop into severe seizures.
  • Difficulty swallowing, resulting in uncontrolled salivation.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Patients develop a fear of water (hydrophobia) due to their inability to swallow.
  • Some patients also develop a fear of moving air (or a breeze), known as aerophobia.
  • After a matter of days, overall organ failure sets in.

In a more rare form of rabies, paralytic rabies, the infected person develops paralysis of the body part first exposed to the virus. The paralysis slowly spreads through the body, leading to multiple organ failure and ultimately death.


There are a number of pre-exposure vaccinations available for humans which could prevent contracting the disease for a short amount of time. If you travel a lot, it’s advised you get vaccinated before each trip. Aside from vaccines, there are also steps you could take to limit exposure to the virus.

  • Avoid approaching animals you don’t know, such as strays.
  • Vaccinate your pets (this includes cats, dogs, rabbits, hares, horses and exotic pet species such as hamsters, rats, mice and guinea pigs). Note that vaccinating rodents does not eliminate the risk of the animal contracting rabies entirely.
  • Spay and neuter your animals to prevent them from roaming.
  • Report stray animals to your local SPCA.
  • Bats are also renowned for carrying the virus, so approach any wild bats with caution.


If you’ve been bitten or scratched by any animal, it’s crucial to wash the wound with soap and water and then seek immediate medical attention. Medical professionals will then administer a number of vaccine injections over a number of days. Rather be proactive in preventing the spread of the virus instead of waiting for symptoms to show. Once symptoms begin to show, it’s usually too late.


While identifying a rabid animal is no easy task – especially when they are in the early stages of infection – there are some things you should look out for:

  • Any unusual behaviour. This applies more to animals you know.
  • Wild animals tend to lose their fear of humans.
  • Aggressive behaviour without provocation.
  • Irregular movements such as ticks or jolting of the head.
  • Excessive salivation and foaming of the mouth.
  • Excessive and often erratic licking.
  • Signs of paralysis.

Again, it’s advisable not to approach any animal unless you absolutely have to. Should you suspect an animal has rabies, contact your local SPCA immediately to report the animal.

Sources: World Health Organisation | Centre for Disease Control and Prevention | National Health Laboratory Service