Typhus is the term for a group of rare bacterial infections that people can contract after being bitten by an infected insect. Different subspecies of the bacteria Rickettsia cause different types of typhus.
In the past, typhus killed millions of people. Today, the disease is rare due to improvements in healthcare and sanitation. Nonetheless, people who live in close quarters and crowded conditions remain more vulnerable to typhus.
This article outlines the causes and symptoms of typhus. We also discuss the risk factors for contracting typhus, as well as the treatment options available.
Typhus is a bacterial infection that a person can acquire when they come into contact with infected insects. The insect contracts the infection by biting an infected person or animal. The insects spread the infection by biting another person or animal.
Different insects spread different types of typhus. Examples include:
- Chiggers: These carry scrub typhus, which is most common in southeast Asia.
- Body lice: A person may contract epidemic typhus after a bite from an infected body louse.
- Fleas: A person may contract murine typhus after contact with an animal that carries infected fleas.
In most cases, symptoms begin within 1 to 2 weeks of exposure to an infected insect. This can make it difficult to trace the original cause of the infection.
The symptoms of typhus include:
Different types of typhus also cause specific symptoms. People who have scrub typhus may notice a dark scab or bite on the skin and may develop swollen lymph nodes. People with murine typhus may experience a loss of appetite.
In some people, especially those with weak immune systems, the symptoms of typhus reappear months or even years following the initial infection. Doctors call this Brill-Zinsser disease. A person who has symptoms of typhus after a previous infection should notify their doctor.
A person is more likely to develop typhus if:
- they travel to a region where typhus infections are more common
- they spend time in very crowded conditions, especially near animals or people with poor hygiene
- they come into contact with fleas, either from pets or from wild animals, such as rodents
- they have contracted body lice
- they have recently hiked or camped in areas that have high brush where chiggers may live
People who develop symptoms of typhus and have one or more risk factors for the disease should see a doctor.
It is important to tell the doctor about all symptoms and any specific risk factors for typhus. This disease mimics the symptoms of other viral illnesses, such as the common cold and flu. Without information about a person’s risk factors, a doctor may easily misdiagnose the condition.
There are currently no vaccines to prevent typhus, and there is no other way to guarantee its prevention. However, the following steps may reduce the risk of contracting typhus, particularly when traveling:
- Wearing different clothes: People should avoid wearing the same clothing every day. This is especially important when living in close quarters, or when exposed to typhus-carrying insects.
- Sanitizing clothes: A person should wash any clothing that has come into contact with lice, fleas, or chiggers. It is essential to wash the clothes in water that is at least 130°F. Alternatively, people can seal the clothes in a plastic bag for at least 2 weeks.
- Wearing appropriate clothing: Wearing long sleeves and socks when camping can help to prevent chigger bites.
- Avoiding dense brush: People should avoid areas of heavy brush, which are more likely to host chiggers.
Typhus infection is rare, even among people who travel to areas where the disease is more prevalent.
Cold or flu-like symptoms usually signal a viral illness. However, a person who has recently traveled or who believes they are at risk of typhus should see a doctor right away. It is essential to see a doctor in the following cases:
- the person experiencing symptoms is an infant, older person, or a person with a weakened immune system
- cold or flu-like symptoms do not go away on their own
- antibiotic treatment for typhus does not improve symptoms within a few days
- new symptoms develop after taking antibiotics
Although they sound similar, typhus and typhoid are different diseases.
Like typhus, typhoid is a bacterial infection. People get typhoid from contact with a type of salmonella bacteria that are present in contaminated food and water. People may also contract typhoid from the feces of people and animals carrying the disease.
Although common in developing nations with poor sanitation, typhoid is rare in high income nations, such as the United States.
The following factors can help to reduce the risk of typhoid infection:
- frequent handwashing
- proper food sanitation
- using only clean, purified water
Typhus was once a terrifying epidemic and a potential death sentence. Today, improved living conditions and better sanitation have eradicated typhus in much of the world. Typhus remains rare, even in areas where the infection is most common.
As long as a person receives prompt antibiotic treatment, typhus is not typically life threatening. However, without such treatment, typhus can still be deadly.
People should see a doctor if they experience any of the symptoms of typhus and have one or more risk factors for acquiring the infection. It is crucial to tell a doctor about all symptoms and possible risk factors.