What is leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a disease caused by a bacterium called Leptospira. Human disease is associated with contact with wild and domestic animal urine. It is extremely rare, with only about one human case reported annually in Illinois.

How does a person get leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is spread mainly by contact with water or soil contaminated by the urine of infected animals. Persons can get the disease by swimming or wading in fresh unchlorinated water contaminated with animal urine or by coming into contact with wet soil or plants contaminated with animal urine. Chlorinated water, such as that in swimming pools or municipal drinking water, has not been shown to transmit leptospirosis. The disease also can be transmitted through direct contact with urine, blood or tissue from an infected animal. The bacteria can enter through broken skin or through the soft tissues on the inside of the mouth, nose or eyes. It is generally not transmitted from person to person.

What are the symptoms of leptospirosis?

Symptoms of leptospirosis include high fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, conjunctivitis (red eyes), diarrhea, vomiting, and kidney or liver problems (which may include jaundice), anemia and, sometimes, rash. Symptoms may last from a few days to several weeks. Although deaths have occurred, they are rare. In some persons, the infection can be mild and without obvious symptoms.

How soon after exposure do symptoms appear?

The incubation period is usually 10 days but can range from two to 21 days.

How is leptospirosis diagnosed?

Leptospirosis is diagnosed using a specific antibody test available through public health laboratories and by culture.

Does past infection with leptospirosis make a person immune?

There are several strains of the organism. Infection with one usually provides immunity to that organism but not to other strains.

What is the treatment for leptospirosis?

The antibiotics of choice include penicillin, streptomycin, tetracycline or erythromycin. Kidney dialysis may be necessary in some cases.

What are the complications associated with leptospirosis?

If not treated, the patient could develop kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure and respiratory distress. In rare cases, death may occur.

How can leptospirosis be prevented?

  • Do not swim or wade in freshwater streams, ponds or lakes when you have open cuts or sores. When swimming in freshwater streams, ponds or lakes, do not take water into your mouth.
  • Do not drink stream, pond or lake water without boiling or chemically treating it.
  • Control rats and mice in areas around the home and work sites.
  • Wear gloves when disposing of dead animals and when gutting (cleaning) livestock or game animals.
  • Drain areas that have still, standing water.

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Illinois Department of Public Health
535 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, Illinois 62761
Phone 217-782-4977
Fax 217-782-3987
TTY 800-547-0466
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