Leptospirosis is a type of bacterial infection that is estimated to affect as much as 10 million people every year across the world. It’s named for the type of bacteria, called Leptospira, and the condition is usually spread through direct contact with material that has been affected by the bacterium. This can range from soil where the bacteria can thrive, or sometimes the bodily fluids of an infected animal.
You could be at an increased risk of contracting leptospirosis if you’re a frequent traveller to remote areas, if you’re a regular adrenaline junkie who spends a lot of time either on or by rivers, or if you work in a slaughterhouse, where the risk of exposure to certain types of bacteria are automatically increased as a potential workplace hazard.
Leptospirosis can be a very dangerous medical condition, and it can lead to serious permanent health issues if it’s left untreated; in some severe cases, it can even be fatal.
Here’s everything that you need to know about leptospirosis, including the different treatment options for the condition, and who can consider themselves at risk for contracting it.
What is Leptospirosis?
As this article has already mentioned, leptospirosis is a common type of bacterial infection that you could be at risk of contracting if you were to come into direct contact with any materials (usually organic ones such as infected soil, water, food or bodily fluids in the case of animals) contaminated with the bacteria.
The first symptoms of leptospirosis can start to show in as little as a week from the first exposure, and symptoms can range from mild to severe – and can become as severe as kidney failure within a matter of days if the condition is left untreated past this point.
The condition is also known as rat fever, and is commonly spread by rodents and rats, but can also be transmitted by most other wild or tame animals if they’ve been infected with the condition. It isn’t normally transmitted from one human to another, but can infect a human host effectively.
There are an estimated 10 million cases of leptospirosis diagnosed every year all over the world. Some of these flare-ups are more common in rural areas where humans come into direct contact with infected animals, but you don’t have to be an explorer, a farmer or even someone living in a rural area to consider yourself at risk.
Leptospirosis can affect you anywhere you’ve come into contact with an infected animal, or infected material like soil, water or urine; this might not happen just in rural areas, but can also happen in areas where infected animals or substances have travelled the distance.
There have been increasing (and worrying) flare-ups of leptospirosis in some parts of the world, including in Australia – and this means that you should consider yourself automatically more at risk for developing the condition.
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms talked about in this article, even if you can’t remember any direct contact with anything that might have been infected with the bacteria, see your doctor so that the proper tests can be done and the right treatment course can be followed after.
The Prevalence of Leptospirosis
Why is leptospirosis on the increase right now? Because leptospirosis is spread through contact with infected materials or animals, it’s the rate of exposure to the condition that’s increasing. In some cases, the condition affects rural areas without access to the proper medication and preventative measures to target the condition – and from there, once anything that has been infected escapes the environment, there’s a risk of a pandemic far outside the environment.
Stray and wild animals can also increase the risk of contracting the condition, because it’s very often spread from animals to humans; the same is true for less-than-ideal conditions in work environments such as slaughterhouses where an infection might be go unnoticed and infect the entire slaughterhouse and everything that moves out of it.
There are a few more risk factors for leptospirosis, including rodent infestations. Rodents are one of the most common carriers of the condition, and a rodent population can potentially go unnoticed in areas like a food store for days, weeks or months – and by then, you’re once again looking at an infection that has spread.
Are You at Risk?
You’re at an increased risk of developing leptospirosis if you’ve come into direct contact with any material that’s been affected, or carriers of the condition. This puts certain professions at an increased risk of developing the condition, including farmers and adventurers, travellers and people who work in slaughterhouses.
There are more than 50, 000 deaths reported from leptospirosis every year: If you work in any kind of high-risk job or happen to live in an area with a diagnosed outbreak, it’s likely that you could contract leptospirosis. Keep a close eye on your health and note any change in symptoms, such as developing a sudden rash or fever, and see your doctor as soon as the first symptoms are noticed.
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If you show any symptoms like the ones described in this article, it could point towards a leptospirosis infection. Count back approximately one to two weeks from your symptom onset to find the approximate time where you might have likely been exposed to the condition.
Other Names for Leptospirosis
Even if you think you’ve never heard of leptospirosis before, it’s likely that you have. The same condition is known by a variety of different names, including as rat fever and field fever, named after its most common type of carrier and the areas they are known to frequent.
There are also further stages of leptospirosis, which the condition will progress to if it’s left untreated for too long. Severe symptoms of this type of infection can include kidney failure, yellowing of the eyes and skin as a result and internal bleeding. When leptospirosis switches over to this, it’s more commonly known as Weil’s Disease instead.
Any type of outdoor activity or contact with potentially infected animals can put you at an increased risk of contracting leptospirosis. This becomes more true if your immune system is at a lower point than it normally is, and an infection also becomes more likely in cases where you’ve touched any water that’s been infected – even by accident, as is common with many types of adventure sports like kayaking or fishing.
Symptoms of Leptospirosis Explored
The symptoms of leptospirosis range from mild to severe, and the first symptoms of the condition will usually start to show within a week to two of being exposed to the bacteria. If you’d like to know more or less when you were exposed to the condition, then count back to find the approximate time of exposure. Sometimes the condition might remain dormant in the body for as much as a month, so your best bet if you can’t figure out when you were exposed to the condition is to see your doctor for the proper tests.
There are rare cases of leptospirosis where no symptoms are displayed, although most cases of infection will start off with symptoms that mirror flu – or just with a fever before it progresses to more severe symptoms. Approximately 90% of leptospirosis cases will stay with mild symptoms, though there are some cases that progress to more severe.
The more severe stages of a leptospirosis infection can include kidney damage (which might be as severe as permanent and lifelong damage that sticks around for years even after the initial infection has left the body), a high-grade fever that doesn’t go away despite attempts at treatment, muscle tension and pain, extremely severe headaches and increased light sensitivity.
Sometimes leptospirosis might occur together with a rash, although this isn’t always the case.
Bleeding due to leptospirosis can happen in many different forms, including blood present in stool or frequent nosebleeds.
In animals, leptospirosis is often asymptomatic.
Treatment for the Condition
A leptospirosis infection is usually diagnosed with tests done on bodily fluids in order to track down the antibodies that fight off the infection; if tests happen to show that the antibodies are present in the body then it means that you have been infected.
Leptospirosis is usually easy to treat with the correct antibiotics, and recovery from the condition will be much faster if the course of antibiotics is started early on enough in the process. If you should suspect that you might have leptospirosis or have come into contact with it, your first step should be to see your doctor – and your next steps should be to increase your immune system by any means necessary, as well as eliminate the source of the infection.
Reducing Your Risk
The risk of contracting leptospirosis is increased anywhere where you might come into contact with areas where infected animals or materials might have been, or where you follow a pastime or work a career that puts you at risk of exposure.
Reduce your risk by finding the source of the infection and eliminating it where possible. Sticking to a very strict hygiene routine can also help to reduce you chances of contracting leptospirosis, even if you’ve come into contact with the bacteria recently.