Friday, May 25, 2012


I'm not sure how many of you read the Austin American Statesman, but typhus made the news yesterday.

Typhus is a bacterial disease that can be spread by lice or fleas; fleas (rat fleas & cat fleas) are often the common vector.  Typhus is caused by one of two types of bacteria- Rickettsia typhi or Rickettsia prowazekii.  The type of typhus contracted depends upon the type of bacteria. 

R. typhi causes murine (also known as endemic) typhus.  It often occurs in the summer through fall and is rarely deadly.  Risk factors include exposure to rat fleas, rat feces or exposure to various animals such as cats, rats, skunks, raccoons or opossums.  Symptoms of murine typhus include abdominal pain, backache, diarrhea, headache, joint and muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, a high fever (105-106 F) and a dull red rash that begins on the torso and spreads.

R. prowazekii causes epidemic typhus.  Lice and fleas of flying squirrels spread this bacteria.  Symptoms of epidemic typhus include chills, cough, delirium, high fever (104 F), joint pain, light sensitivity, severe headache, severe muscle pain and a rash that starts on the torso and spreads out.

People get murine typhus from of an infected flea. Most fleas defecate while feeding, so the bacteria can enter the body through the bite wound or by the area being scratched. You may also get murine typhus by inhaling fecal material infected with the bacteria.

Treatment of typhus generally involves antibiotics.  Epidemic typhus may need intravenous fluids and oxygen as well.  If you suspect that you may have typhus, see a physician as soon as possible.

Of course, to reduce the chance of having flea-carrying organisms around, you can try the following:

  1. Do not leave pet food out over night.
  2. Make sure all garbage cans have tight fitting lids.
  3. Keep fire wood and other items off the ground.
  4. Keep yard maintained.
  5. Inspect the outside of the home and seal any areas where rodents may enter (use stainless steel mesh screening or flashing).
  6. If you have pets, use a monthly flea treatment (see your veterinarian for recommendations).
  7. If you have a flea infestation, treat it promptly.