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What is Typhus Fever?

D. Jeffress
D. Jeffress

Typhus fever is a potentially life-threatening type of infection caused by bacteria in the Rickettsia genus. The bacteria are carried by lice, mites, and ticks, and are transferred to a human host when he or she is bitten by an infected insect. In addition to inducing a very high fever, infection can also cause extreme fatigue, chills, coughing, headaches, and skin rashes. Typhus fever occurs worldwide and is a significant cause of death in some regions with poor sanitation and little access to quality health-care. When the disease is recognized early, it can usually be treated with strong antibiotics.

Rickettsia bacteria mature and thrive in the digestive tracts of several parasitic insects. Human lice, fleas that inhabit pets and rodents, and mites are all potential hosts. When such an insect bites a human, it deposits trace amounts of feces that is laden with Rickettsia. Scratching the bite can transfer bacteria into the wound and give pathogens an opportunity to enter the bloodstream. Within a few days of the initial infection, bacteria spread throughout the body and begin causing symptoms.

Rats can carry fleas and lice that may be infected with the bacteria that cause typhus.
Rats can carry fleas and lice that may be infected with the bacteria that cause typhus.

People who live in crowded, unsanitary communities are at the highest risk of catching typhus fever. Poor personal hygiene and a lack of modern bathroom facilities increase the chances of becoming infested with lice and transmitting the parasites to other people. Disease-causing fleas can thrive in areas infested with rats, raccoons, and other pests.

Raccoons can be carriers of typhus fever.
Raccoons can be carriers of typhus fever.

The symptoms of typhus fever can include chills, joint and muscle pain, severe headaches, and a dry cough. Fevers higher than 105°F (about 40.5°C) are common and may induce fatigue, weakness, and mental confusion. A person may also experience an itchy skin rash that typically begins on the torso and spreads across a large portion of the body. Left untreated, a severe case of typhus fever can cause life-threatening damage to vital organs, including the kidneys and lungs.

Symptoms of typhus fever include a very high fever and headache.
Symptoms of typhus fever include a very high fever and headache.

Most cases of typhus fever can be diagnosed based on physical exams and the results of blood work. Blood tests may reveal the presence Rickettsia pathogens and deficiencies in immune system activity. If a patient is in critical condition, he or she may need to be hospitalized to receive intravenous fluids and breathing assistance. Treatment with tetracycline, doxycycline, or similar antibiotics is started right away and continued for about two weeks. Patients who receive immediate care are usually able to completely recover from their symptoms in less than one month.

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    • Rats can carry fleas and lice that may be infected with the bacteria that cause typhus.
      By: Ilia Shcherbakov
      Rats can carry fleas and lice that may be infected with the bacteria that cause typhus.
    • Raccoons can be carriers of typhus fever.
      By: chas53
      Raccoons can be carriers of typhus fever.
    • Symptoms of typhus fever include a very high fever and headache.
      By: Piotr Marcinski
      Symptoms of typhus fever include a very high fever and headache.
    • A person with a severe cause of typhus fever may need intravenous fluids.
      By: ShpilbergStudios
      A person with a severe cause of typhus fever may need intravenous fluids.