Rabies is a virus that attacks the brain and spinal cord, which controls body movement, among other functions. It is usually contracted through an animal bite, although sometimes mammals can become infected from contact with saliva or brain tissue from an infected animal.
A virus is a germ that cannot digest its own food or grow on its own. It is a parasite and needs a host cell to survive and thrive. So a rabies virus will attach itself to a nerve cell, and it will eventually penetrate into the cell, where it will multiply rapidly. Once the host cell dies, the rabies virus leaves that cell and attaches to other nerve cells. The virus then travels throughout the nervous system, infecting cell after cell until it reaches the brain.
Early indicators of rabies include irritability, headache, fever, and itching or pain at the site of the bite. As the disease spreads, the person will experience paralysis, throat muscle spasms, convulsions and delirium. Once these symptoms appear, the disease is fatal. A series of shots administered before symptoms appear will ensure the disease does not develop. Symptoms typically present within two weeks to many months after the infecting bite occurs.
Rabies is best prevented by avoiding exposure to animals infected with the virus. How can you tell if an animal has rabies? Those with "dumb" rabies seem depressed and may move to more isolated places, while other animals, especially skunks, may lose their natural fear of humans. Such animals may show signs of partial paralysis, such as dropping head of paralyzed hind limbs. In "furious" rabies, animals may gnaw or bite their own limbs, or show signs of extreme excitement and aggression.
What should you do if you're bitten by a rabid animal?
Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and lots of water and seek medical help immediately. Your doctor should give you a series of six shots of the rabies vaccine over a one-month period.