How do you get Typhus

typhus in children

What is Typhus?

Typhus is a sudden severe illness caused by infection with Rickettsia bacteria.

Outbreaks of typhus tend to occur in developing countries and areas where there is poverty, homelessness, close human contact and poor sanitation.

The Rickettsia bacteria that cause typhus are carried by body lice, ticks, mites and fleas.

This page covers the main types:

  • epidemic typhus (the most serious form) – this type occurs in Africa, South America and Asia, and is transmitted by body lice
  • endemic typhus (the milder form of the disease) – it occurs throughout the world and is transmitted by ticks, mites and fleas
  • scrub typhus (also called Tsutsugamushi fever) – this type is caught from mites infected with Orientia tsutsugamushi bacteria, which live in heavy scrub vegetation in parts of rural southeast Asia, Oceania and northern Australia

Typhus is generally not a problem in the UK. But you may become infected abroad if you catch Rickettsia-infected lice from infested people or bedding (in budget accommodation or on a sleeper train, for example), or if you are bitten by a Rickettsia-infected tick, mite or flea.

How do you get Typhus?

Typhus is a disease caused by an infection with the Rickettsia bacteria. Fleas, mites (chiggers), lice, or ticks transmit it when they bite you.

Typhus Prevention

Avoid areas where you might encounter rat fleas or lice. Good sanitation and public health measures reduce the rat population.

Measures to get rid of lice when an infection has been found include:

  • Bathing
  • Boiling clothes or avoiding infested clothing for at least 5 days (lice will die without feeding on blood)
  • Using insecticides (10% DDT, 1% malathion, or 1% permethrin).

Typhus Risk Factors

Typhus risk factors include living in or visiting areas where the disease is endemic. These include many port cities where rat populations are high, and areas where trash accumulates and hygiene may be low. Disaster zones, homeless camps, poverty-stricken areas, and other similar situations that allow rodents to come into close contact with people represent the greatest threats. These are the same type of conditions that lead to outbreaks of cholera, tuberculosis, and viral diseases like influenza. Spring and summer months are when fleas (and ticks) are most active, but infections can occur any time of the year.

Treatment for Typhus

Treatment includes the following antibiotics:

  • Doxycycline
  • Tetracycline
  • Chloramphenicol (less common)

Tetracycline taken by mouth can permanently stain teeth that are still forming. It is usually not prescribed for children until after all of their permanent teeth have grown.

People with epidemic typhus may need oxygen and intravenous (IV) fluids.

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