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Patient education: Leptospirosis (The Basics)
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Patient education: Leptospirosis (The Basics)
Written by the doctors and editors at UpToDate
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
Literature review current through: Sep 2017. | This topic last updated: May 09, 2016.

What is leptospirosis? — Leptospirosis is a disease that can cause fever, muscle aches, and headaches. It is caused by a germ that infects animals. The germ lives in the urine of animals that carry it.

The main way humans get leptospirosis is from water or soil with animal urine in it. The germ gets into the body through cuts or scrapes. It can also get in through the pink, moist tissues called "mucous membranes" that line your mouth, nose, eyes, and other body parts.

Animals that can carry leptospirosis include:

Rodents, such as rats and mice

Farm animals, such as cows, pigs, horses, sheep, and goats

Dogs

Leptospirosis is more common in certain parts of the United States. These include Hawaii, the South, and the Pacific coast states. The disease is also common in South America, Central America, South Asia, and islands in the Pacific Ocean.

What are the symptoms of leptospirosis? — Leptospirosis can be mild or severe. Some people have no symptoms or very mild symptoms.

If symptoms do happen, they usually start suddenly. The main symptoms include:

Fever

Shaking chills

Muscle aches

Headaches

Other symptoms include:

Whites of the eyes turning red

Dry cough

Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or belly pain

Pain in joints or bones

Sore throat

Rash

Some people get very sick with leptospirosis. They can have serious problems in the lungs, liver, muscles, and other body parts.

Will I need tests? — Yes. The doctor or nurse will ask about your symptoms and do an exam. He or she can order tests to check for leptospirosis or a different condition that might be causing symptoms. Tests can include:

Blood tests

Urine tests

Tests on samples of the fluid from your spinal cord (called "cerebrospinal fluid" or "CSF")

How is leptospirosis treated? — Most people who get leptospirosis get better on their own. But if you feel sick enough to see the doctor or nurse, he or she can prescribe an antibiotic medicine. You can take this medicine by mouth. This helps most people get well faster.

If you get very sick, you might need treatment in the hospital. Doctors can give antibiotics through an "IV." This is a thin tube that goes into a vein. Doctors can also give treatments for serious symptoms such as breathing problems, if you have them.

Can leptospirosis be prevented? — You can reduce your chances of getting leptospirosis by:

Staying away from water or soil that might be infected, such as:

Puddles, ponds, or lakes where the water does not move much or has scum on it

Water that could have animal waste in it – For example, waste that drains from a farm or ranch

Soil on a farm or ranch

Keeping rats and mice out of your house or yard

Not touching rats or mice

Keeping food and drinks away from animals

Getting your animals a vaccine (shot) against leptospirosis, if possible

There is no leptospirosis vaccine for humans in the United States.

More on this topic

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Patient education: Avoiding infections in pregnancy (The Basics)
Patient education: Rhabdomyolysis (The Basics)

Patient education: General travel advice (Beyond the Basics)

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Topic 83289 Version 3.0

All topics are updated as new information becomes available. Our peer review process typically takes one to six weeks depending on the issue.