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Typhus

Definition

Typhus is a bacterial disease spread by lice or fleas.

Alternative Names

Murine typhus; Epidemic typhus; Endemic typhus; Brill-Zinsser disease; Jail fever

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Typhus is caused by one of two types of bacteria: Rickettsia typhi or Rickettsia prowazekii.

Rickettsia typhi causes murine or endemic typhus.

  • Endemic typhus is uncommon in the United States. It is usually seen in areas where hygiene is poor and the temperature is cold. Endemic typhus is sometimes called "jail fever." The bacteria that causes this type is usually spread by rats to fleas to humans.
  • Murine typhus occurs in the southern United States, particularly California and Texas. It is often seen during the summer and fall. It is rarely deadly. You are more likely to get this type of typhus if you are around rats feces or fleas, and other animals  such as cats, opossums, raccoons, and skunks.

Rickettsia prowazekii causes epidemic typhus. It is spread by lice. Brill-Zinsser disease is a mild form of epidemic typhus.  It occurs when the bacteria re-activates in a person who was previously infected. It is more common in the elderly.

Symptoms

Symptoms of murine or endemic typhus may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Backache
  • Dull red rash that begins on the middle of the body and spreads
  • Extremely high fever (105 - 106 degrees Fahrenheit), which may last up to 2 weeks
  • Hacking, dry cough
  • Headache
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Symptoms of epidemic typhus may include:

  • Chills
  • Confusion
  • Cough
  • Delirium
  • High fever (104 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Joint pain (arthralgia)
  • Lights that appear very bright; light may hurt the eyes
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rash that begins on the chest and spreads to the rest of the body (except the palms of the hands and soles of the feet)
  • Severe headache
  • Severe muscle pain (myalgia)
  • Stupor

The early rash is a light rose color and fades when you press on it. Later, the rash becomes dull and red and does not fade. People with severe typhus may also develop small areas of bleeding into the skin (petechiae).

Signs and tests

A complete blood count (CBC) may show a low white blood cell count, anemia, and low platelets. Other blood tests for typhus may show:

Treatment

Treatment includes antibiotics such as:

  • 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 in.

Patients with epidemic typhus may need intravenous fluids and oxygen.

Expectations (prognosis)

Without treatment, death may occur in 10 - 60% of patients with epidemic typhus. Patients over age 60 have the highest risk of death. Patients who receive treatment quickly should completely recover.

Less than 2% of untreated patients with murine typhus may die. Prompt antibiotic treatment will cure nearly all patients.

Complications

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if you develop symptoms of typhus. This serious disorder can require emergency care.

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)

References

Dumler JS, Walker DH. Rickettsia typhi (Murine typhus). In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 191.

Raoult D. Rickettsial infections. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 335.

Walker DH, Raoult D. Rickettsia prowazeckii (Epidemic or louse-borne typhus). In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 190.


Review Date: 10/6/2012
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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