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Leptospirosis Symptoms and Treatment

Medically reviewed by Ika Villanueva Caperonce, MD · Infectious Disease · Makati Medical Center

Written by Ruby Anne Hornillos · Updated Jul 30, 2021

Leptospirosis Symptoms and Treatment

What are leptospirosis symptoms and treatment? Viruses, diseases, and infections usually get passed from one person to another. Most diseases are spread by human transmission, either by bodily waste or fluid. However, there are some diseases that can be acquired by humans through animals. These types of diseases are called zoonotic diseases. 

Leptospirosis is a common zoonotic disease. Despite its low prevalence in some parts of the world, leptospirosis is regarded as the most widespread zoonotic disease worldwide. Data shows that there are 1 million cases of leptospirosis per year, with 59,000 leptospirosis-related deaths worldwide.

What is Leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that mainly occurs in animals but can be transmitted to human beings as well. It’s caused by spiral-shaped bacteria called “leptospires” or spirochetes. This bacteria can affect the liver, kidneys, and other organs in both humans and animals.

This disease can be acquired by many different domestic and wild animals namely: 

  • Marine mammals
  • Cattle 
  • Sheep
  • Goats
  • Pigs
  • Horses
  • Dogs, rarely cats
  • Rodents 

Animals can get infected with leptospira bacteria in many ways. Since leptospirosis is mainly transmitted through infected urine, animals can get infected by drinking contaminated water or coming into contact with contaminated soil. The bacteria that cause leptospirosis can enter through the animal’s eyes, nose, and mouth, which are the most important reservoirs for maintained transmission.

Humans can get infected with leptospirosis through environmental exposure::

  • Entry into humans can be through cuts and abrasions in the skin, through intact mucous membranes in the nose, mouth, eyes, and through waterlogged skin
  • Coming in contact with an infected animal’s urine, or other body fluids except for saliva
  • Coming in contact with soil, water, or food that’s been contaminated with an infected animal’s urine
  • Leptospires occasionally enter the human body via the inhalation of droplets of urine of infected animals or via drinking water

However, a person infected with leptospirosis is unlikely to directly infect someone else. Outbreaks are usually associated with heavy rainfall and flooding, which increases the risk of exposure to contaminated water.

Leptospirosis Symptoms and Treatment

If you’ve been infected with the bacteria that cause leptospirosis, you’ll probably start to show symptoms at around 10 days after your exposure. However, symptoms can appear between 2 to 29 days after infection. 

Someone infected with leptospirosis can exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle pains, specifically in the legs
  • Eye redness
  • Vomiting
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Cough
  • Sore throat

Untreated cases of leptospirosis can have serious consequences on a person’s health.

Leptospirosis Phases

First Phase

During the first phase, the usual symptoms occur. However, the person recovers but then gets ill again. This is also called the acute or febrile phase when the bacteria circulates in the blood causing the classic symptoms. This phase lasts for 2-9 days and may be followed by a period of apparent improvement.

Second Phase

The second phase of leptospirosis cases usually involves more severe symptoms. In this phase, leptospirosis can cause kidney or liver failure, or meningitis. Characterized by the recurrence of fever and development of complications and severe symptoms.

Severe symptoms of leptospirosis include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver failure
  • Breathing problems characterized by recurrence of fever and development of complications and severe symptoms
  • Meningitis (swelling of membranes around the brain and spinal cord)

Once given the proper treatment, a person suffering from leptospirosis can recover in just a few weeks’ time. However, if left untreated, leptospirosis can persist for months.

What Puts Me at Risk of Leptospirosis?

Although leptospirosis is the most widespread zoonotic disease, it most usually occurs in temperate or tropical climates. It is also a disease associated with poverty, poor housing and sanitation, and flooding. People with the following occupations are most at risk of acquiring the disease:

  • Dairy farmers
  • Sewer workers
  • Farmers
  • Veterinarians or animal caretakers
  • Fishermen

People with these types of occupations are at risk of getting infected because their jobs expose them to the outdoors or animals.

Recreational activities such as the following can also put you at risk of leptospirosis:

  • Water sports (such as kayaking or white water rafting)
  • Swimming
  • Camping
  • Gardening

These recreational activities put you at risk of leptospirosis because you’ll be interacting with soil or potentially contaminated bodies of water like rivers.

Treatment for Leptospirosis

Confirming leptospirosis symptoms and treatment involves being properly diagnosed by a doctor. There are tests that health practitioners can conduct to confirm the diagnosis. However, the diagnosis is usually based on a high index of suspicion, exposure history, and clinical leptospirosis signs and symptoms.

In order to determine if a person has leptospirosis, health practitioners usually conduct blood tests. As of the moment, a leptospirosis vaccine for humans isn’t available. Treatment of this disease involves antibiotics such as doxycycline or penicillin. 

If you suspect that you’ve acquired leptospirosis, it’s best to contact a health practitioner right away in order to get treatment as soon as possible. Leptospirosis is best treated during the early onset of symptoms, in order to prevent more severe symptoms.

Prevention of Leptospirosis

In the case of leptospirosis, prevention is definitely better than cure. Some preventive measures include:

  • Always wash your hands with soap and water, especially if you’ve been handling animals.
  • If you’re into gardening, make sure to use gloves for protection.
  • Keep your house clean and tidy, to make it less appealing for rodents.
  • If wading in water or flood can not be avoided, make sure to cover breaks in the skin and wear proper protective shoes and clothing.
  • Wear the appropriate footwear, especially if wading in mud and soil.
  • Avoid contact with potentially contaminated water.

In case of any exposure, ask your doctor about antibiotic prophylaxis or medication that you can take to protect you from being infected.

If you have pets or other animals in your home, make sure to observe the following practices:

  • Clean surfaces that your dog has urinated on, make sure to use gloves, and disinfect the area properly.
  • Don’t let your dog pee in areas where you or your family frequent.
  • Always wash your hands after handling pets.
  • Vaccinate your pigs, cattle, or dogs.

Key Takeaways

What are leptospirosis symptoms and treatment? Leptospirosis is a disease caused by bacteria found in the urine of infected animals such as rodents, dogs, cattle, and other animals. This disease is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be passed on from animals to humans. Avoiding exposure and practicing good hygiene are the best ways to prevent leptospirosis.

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Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Ika Villanueva Caperonce, MD

Infectious Disease · Makati Medical Center

Written by Ruby Anne Hornillos · Updated Jul 30, 2021

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