Leptospirosis is a potentially severe illness. It's not easy for humans to contract this illness.
Leptospirosis is a potentially severe illness. It's not easy for humans to contract this illness.

Leptospirosis is a potentially severe illness. It's not easy for humans to contract this illness. It's most common in animals, and humans usually only catch it if they've been in contact with urine or feces from an infected animal.

What is leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a disease that affects humans and animals. It’s named after leptospira, the bacteria that causes the illness. It’s most prevalent in tropical climates.

How common is leptospirosis in humans?

Humans can get leptospirosis after exposure to infected animals and their feces and urine. It’s very rare, though, for humans to pass it to other humans. The CDC estimates that only 100 to 150 Americans contract leptospirosis per year.

What are the symptoms of leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis causes several symptoms. Some people only have a few symptoms, and others have no symptoms at all. Many signs of the disease are similar to other illnesses, which makes leptospirosis hard to diagnose.

Symptoms include:

Depending on how severe the infection is, leptospirosis can last a few days to several weeks. Antibiotics help speed up recovery. People who don’t get treatment, on the other hand, may have effects for months after the infection.

What are the main causes of leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis occurs most frequently in animals, but animals can pass it to humans. Both wild and domestic animals are at risk of contracting the bacteria. Commonly affected animals include:

  • Cattle
  • Dogs
  • Horses
  • Pigs
  • Rodents
  • Wild animals, including deer, raccoons

When animals have leptospirosis, they pass the bacteria in their urine and feces. The bacteria can linger in water or soil for long periods of time after leaving the animal’s body. If you come into contact with infected animal waste, you may contract the illness. Experts find that infections in humans are often the result of contact with water or soil that was contaminated with animal waste:

It’s possible to come into contact with contaminated water and soil without realizing it. Natural bodies of water can contain animal urine. If you swim or wade in contaminated water, the bacteria can get into your body through small cuts or scrapes

Drinking contaminated water can also cause infection. Gardening, digging, or working in contaminated soil can have the same effects.

The risk of leptospirosis can rise after a natural disaster. In situations where there is flooding or if water treatment facilities are shut down, people may have increased contact with contaminated water. You should avoid contact with or the ingestion of floodwater.

There is a small risk of getting leptospirosis from a household pet. If your pet has been diagnosed with the condition, you should avoid contact with their urine or feces. If you need to clean up after a pet, wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly. Disinfect any indoor surfaces that come in contact with pet urine or feces.

There is a vaccine to prevent leptospirosis in pets. Your vet can give you information about whether they recommend the vaccine for your pet.

It is very rare to get leptospirosis from human-to-human contact. The bacteria doesn’t transmit through saliva, and it’s not airborne, so kissing and breathing aren’t dangerous.

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Who can get leptospirosis?

Anyone who comes in contact with the leptospira bacteria can contract the disease. It is more common in people who spend a lot of time around wild animals, livestock, soil, and untreated water. 

Certain professions come with a higher risk, including:

  • Dairy workers
  • Farmers
  • Fish workers
  • Mineworkers
  • Military personnel
  • Sewer workers
  • Slaughterhouse workers
  • Veterinarians and animal caretakers

People who engage in outdoor water activities like fishing, and kayaking can also risk exposure to leptospira, particularly in tropical or temperate climates. Your risk also increases if you live or work in a building with a rodent infestation.

How do you treat leptospirosis?

If you have symptoms of leptospirosis, you should see a doctor. Let them know if you have been exposed to the bacteria 5 to 14 days before your symptoms started. You will need blood tests to confirm the diagnosis. Also let them know if you have traveled to an area where leptospirosis is common.

Your doctor will give you antibiotics to kill the bacteria in your system. Oral medication like doxycycline or penicillin may be sufficient. If you have a more severe case, your doctor might recommend IV antibiotics at a higher dose.

Severe leptospirosis

In very rare cases, leptospirosis leads to a severe form of the illness called Weil syndrome. It only affects about 10% of people who contract leptospirosis, but it can be life-threatening. 

Weil syndrome leads to acute symptoms such as fever, kidney failure, jaundice due to liver failure, hemorrhage, and respiratory distress. It can also affect the heart, central nervous system, and muscles. 

Most people who develop Weil syndrome will need to be hospitalized. The illness can last for weeks or months and may be fatal, but prompt treatment with IV antibiotics can be effective.

How do you prevent leptospirosis?

You can reduce your risk of leptospirosis by being cautious during activities that might bring you in contact with animal waste or contaminated water or soil.

If you have pets, talk to your vet about having them vaccinated against leptospirosis. If you work around animals that might be infected, wear protective clothing, including gloves and eye protection. Wash your hands often and shower after you finish work.

Cover any cuts or scrapes with a waterproof dressing if you are going hiking, swimming, camping, or boating. Wear shoes or protective foot coverings whenever you are outdoors. Avoid ingesting untreated water. Wash hands and shower in clean water as soon as you can after outdoor activities.

Keep your home and workplace free of rodents if possible. Don’t leave food out where it might attract mice or other pests. Seal any entry points where rats or mice could get in. Use traps or hire an exterminator if you think you have rodents. Clean and disinfect any areas where you see evidence of rats or mice.

While it is possible for humans to get leptospirosis, it is not common. Additionally, taking precautions to avoid contaminated soil and water will reduce your risk. If you work around animals, use proper safety equipment and talk to your doctor about what you can do to prevent infection.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/14/2022
References
America Veterinary Medical Association: “Leptospirosis.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Leptospirosis Fact Sheet.” “Leptospirosis Infection.” “Leptospirosis Risk of Exposure.” “Leptospirosis Signs and Symptoms.” “Leptospirosis Treatment.”

NSW Health: “Leptospirosis fact sheet.”

Virginia Department of Health: “LEPTOSPIROSIS.”

Wang S, Stobart Gallagher MA, Dunn N, Leptospirosis, StatPearls Publishing, 2022.