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How Common is Leptospirosis in Humans?

Reviewed on 1/4/2021

What is leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a zoologic disease that humans contract through contact with infected animal urine. People who are most at risk of getting leptospirosis live in poor sanitary conditions like urban slums and tropical climate regions that are prone to flooding.
Leptospirosis is a zoologic disease that humans contract through contact with infected animal urine. People who are most at risk of getting leptospirosis live in poor sanitary conditions like urban slums and tropical climate regions that are prone to flooding.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. Humans get infected through direct exposure with the Leptospira interrogans bacteria that resides in the urine of infected animals. It can enter the body through cuts on the skin or through openings in the body like the eyes, nose, and mouth

People who are most at risk of getting leptospirosis live in poor sanitary conditions like urban slums and tropical climate regions that are prone to flooding. People who work with animals or spend significant recreational time in floodwaters are also at higher risk of contracting the disease. Person-to-person transmission is rare.

Symptoms of leptospirosis

Most infections of leptospirosis in humans are either asymptomatic or show only mild signs. The symptoms that are caused by leptospirosis include:

These leptospirosis symptoms can be caused by other diseases. It is therefore important to consult a doctor if you suspect you might have been exposed to leptospirosis.

Severe leptospirosis is characterized by multiple organ dysfunction that includes the liver, lungs, brain, and kidneys. The combination of jaundice and renal failure, known as Weil’s disease, is an effective indicator of leptospirosis.   

It takes between two days and four weeks from the time you were contaminated to show signs of being sick. It typically begins with a sudden and abrupt case of fever, with potentially some of the other symptoms identified above. Leptospirosis usually occurs in two phases:

The illness lasts from a few days to three or more weeks. Recovery may take several months if not treated.

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Causes of leptospirosis

Humans contract leptospirosis if the Leptospira interrogans bacterium enters their body through a cut in the skin or an opening in the body. This bacterium resides in the urine of animals, especially rats and farm animals.

Leptospirosis occurs worldwide, but is most common in temperate or tropical climates. It is an occupational hazard for many people who work outdoors or with animals, such as:

  • Farmers
  • Fishermen
  • Miners
  • Sewer workers
  • Slaughterhouse workers
  • Veterinarians and animal caretakers
  • Military personnel

The disease has also been linked to recreational outdoor activities like kayaking, swimming, and rafting in contaminated lakes and rivers. The risk increases for those who participate in these activities in tropical or temperate climates.

Temporary climate conditions like hurricanes and flooding increase the risk of contracting leptospirosis. Floodwaters will pick up contaminated urine from the soil and can infect humans if they swim or wade into those waters and it gets into their bodies.

When to see the doctor for leptospirosis

You should see a doctor if you develop any of the symptoms listed above and have been in areas of increased risk for contracting leptospirosis. While the symptoms of leptospirosis are similar to other diseases, only a doctor can confirm the case and guide needed treatment, like administering a prescription for antibiotics.

Diagnosis for leptospirosis

The symptoms of leptospirosis are similar to other diseases like the flu or meningitis. Your doctor will therefore need to do more than a physical exam to determine whether or not you have leptospirosis. They will likely take a blood sample to examine it for antibodies.

Treatments for leptospirosis

Treatment

Most cases of leptospirosis are mild and resolve on their own. However, early detection and immediate medical treatment are important in effectively curing leptospirosis and for preventing the disease from progressing to more severe levels.

Leptospirosis is treated with antibiotics, such as penicillin or doxycycline. Intravenous antibiotics might be used for those with more severe symptoms. 

Prevention

The best way to avoid contracting leptospirosis is to take precautions to limit exposure in areas and situations where the disease is found. Care should be taken to avoid handling sick animals or getting in contact with their urine. Recreational water sports should be done in bodies of water that have not recently been flooded or hit with a hurricane.

For workers in the fields identified above, personal protective equipment such as gloves, boots, googles, and overalls should be worn to protect exposure of mucous membranes and the skin.   

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References
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Hurricanes, Floods and Leptospirosis."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Leptospirosis."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Leptospirosis Treatment."

Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology: "Leptospirosis in Humans."

World Health Organization: "Leptospirosis."

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