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Know your risks: Leptospirosis

Know your risks: Leptospirosis

The best prevention is achieved through understanding and taking precautions based on this knowledge. At Pest Expert we feel it is not only important that we supply you with the markets best pest control products, but also with in depth advice to help you treat and stay protected. In this series or articles we will aim to give you a solid understanding on the various disease transmitted by rodents, how to notice the signs and importantly how you can avoid them while carrying out your rodent treatment.


Leptospirosis is the most common rat-borne diseases and is one of the most widespread zoonosis[1] in the word. Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection which is harboured in the kidneys of rats and spread by their urine. Infected rodents will show no outwards signs of Leptospirosis, and due to the symptoms of Leptospirosis being much like the common flu it can be equally difficult to diagnose from the outward signs in humans. Weil’s disease is the secondary phase of the bacterial infection and is far more harmful to humans.

How is Leptospirosis transferred?

Leptospirosis is transmitted when contaminated urine comes into contact with mucous membranes, often through contaminated water. The bacterium enters through cuts, blisters and any breaks in the skin, membrane and eyes. Leptospirosis is not usually transmitted through swallowing water or rat bites.

Is Leptospirosis common?

Leptospirosis is most common in tropical and subtropical environments as such it is always worth being aware if an illness with flu like symptoms occurring through travel. The risk of contracting the disease varies according to the sizes of the local rodent population.

What are the symptoms of Leptospirosis?

Incubation period: 2-21 days from time of infection.

First Phase: Symptoms can often be mistake for influenza, meningitis or a fever. Symptoms are very similar to the flu including; fever, vomiting, headaches, chills, muscular aches, loss of appetite and nausea. In 90% of cases these symptoms last for between 3-5 days before recovery, after which many will suffer from a noticeable fatigue for some time.

Second Phase: If the fever lasts for around five days followed by a marked deterioration it is indicative of the transition to the second phase and most severe presentation of Leptospirosis, known as Weil’s disease. The initial symptoms will reoccur, further symptoms vary according to the severity, but can include jaundice, red eyes, bruising of the skin, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, anaemia and nose bleeds. Severe cases can cause kidney or liver failure, with death occurring in 15% of Weil’s disease cases due to heart, liver or respiratory failure or internal bleeding.

How is Leptospirosis treated?

Due to many cases of Leptospirosis being mild they are treated with a 5-7 day course of antibiotic tablets, penicillin or doxycycline, a tetracycline antibiotic, are the preferred choices. Although their effectiveness has not been conclusively proven they have been shown to kill the bacteria and prevent triggering the infection to return. Painkillers can be used to relieve symptoms such as headaches, high temperature and muscular pain. If transition to the second phase occurs you may need to be admitted to hospital, with antibiotics injected directly into the bloodstream intravenously. If organ damage has occurred, dialysis, ventilators to assist breathing and intravenous fluids are used to support vital functions and restore the fluids and nutrients to the body. Some cases can leave the hospital within a few weeks, others may be required to spend several months in hospital care depended upon a patients response to the antibiotics and the extent of organ damage. It is difficult to predict how Leptospirosis affects pregnancy, in some cases the infection has spread to the unborn child and has been fatal.

Am I at risk of a second infection?

If you have previously contracted Leptospirosis you will have developed immunity to that specific strain and will remain immune to it and other closely related strains for up to ten years.

What steps should I take to avoid Leptospirosis?

The risks of infection are greater when open wounds are immersed in stagnant or slow moving water contaminated with rat urine. Contact with fresh or untreated water including canals, lakes, rivers, ponds, canals and flood waters can lead to infection. The bacteria causing Leptospirosis is unable to survive in salt water, as such swimming in the sea runs no risk of contracting the disease. Leptospirosis bacteria does not live long in dry conditions, but can remain active in fresh water up to a month.

Steps you should take include:

Covering all open wounds, cuts and abrasions with waterproof plasters

Wearing protective clothing such as gloves when in contact with rodent urine

Washing thoroughly if you have entered an 'at risk' water source

Avoiding immersion in or ingesting suspect waters

Wearing footwear to avoid the risk of cutting feet in water sources

Cleaning any open wounds obtained during time in fresh water

If you have been in contact with open water or have traveled to parts of the world where Leptospirosis is widespread and notice signs of flu or fever you should always seek medical treatment and explain your situation. Early diagnosis and treatment of Leptospirosis will prevent more severe cases of infection. Diagnosis is confirmed through a series of blood and urine tests to check for specific antibodies.