Tularemia (Rabbit Fever)

  • Medical Author:
    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP

    Mary D. Nettleman, MD, MS, MACP is the Chair of the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Medical School, and completed her residency in Internal Medicine and a fellowship in Infectious Diseases at Indiana University.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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What are symptoms and signs of tularemia?

Symptoms usually appear three to five days after the organism is acquired, although longer incubation periods (14 days) have been reported. Patients become ill suddenly and have influenza-like symptoms with fever, aches, and fatigue, and headache. A nonspecific rash may occur. Fever may be high, and may go away for a short time only to return. Untreated, the fever usually lasts about four weeks.

Other symptoms depend on the type of tularemia. In ulceroglandular tularemia, a red nodule appears at the site of inoculation and eventually forms an open sore associated with swollen lymph nodes. If untreated, the sore and the swollen lymph nodes resolve slowly over a period of months. Lymph nodes may become filled with pus (suppurate) and require drainage. In glandular tularemia, there is significant swelling of a group of lymph nodes but no detectable sore. The eye is infected (oculoglandular disease) when touched by contaminated hands, causing pain, swelling, and discharge. Oculoglandular disease is accompanied by swollen lymph nodes around the ear and neck.

Pharyngeal tularemia is usually acquired through eating or drinking and causes a sore throat. Necrotic tissue and pus often line the throat, and the lymph nodes of the neck are swollen.

Typhoidal tularemia causes infection of many organs and the bloodstream. Patients with typhoidal tularemia may experience diarrhea or jaundice. As the disease progresses, the liver and spleen may become enlarged. Pneumonia may occur at presentation or may be a late complication. In severe disease, the kidneys and other organs may fail.

Pneumonic tularemia is caused by inhalation of infected material or by spread of the organism to the lung from other sites. Inhalation may occur while farming, mowing a yard (mowing over dead rodents), or sheering sheep. Laboratory workers may become infected when material is inadvertently aerosolized in the lab. Pneumonia may occur in any of the types of tularemia but is especially common in typhoidal tularemia.

Untreated tularemia is fatal in up to 60% of cases and is often due to organ failure. With treatment, deaths are rare and the mortality rate is less than 5%. However, many patients have fatigue that continues for months after the infection resolves. Less common complications include meningitis, bone infection, or infection of the heart.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/10/2015

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