What Is Typhus?
Typhus fevers are caused by the rickettsiae bacteria and transmitted by arthropod (e.g. flea, mite, tick) bites. When arthropods bite a victim, they leave the rickettsaie bacteria behind. Scratching the bite opens the skin to the bacteria, allowing them to enter the bloodstream. Within the blood stream, the bacteria grow and replicate.
Different arthropods carry specific rickettsaie bacteria for each type of typhus. Typhus symptoms vary slightly by type. The most common symptoms are universal, affecting nearly all typhus patients.
Treatment focuses on using antibiotic medication to stop the infection. Untreated typhus can lead to serious complications and be potentially fatal. Prevention of typhus is easier than treatment. Methods of prevention focus on destroying or avoiding arthropod infestations.
Causes of Typus
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 of Typhus
Symptoms vary slightly by the type of typhus.
Common symptoms of typhus include:
- high fever
Rare symptoms of epidemic typhus include stupor and seeming out of touch with reality.
Symptoms of epidemic typhus may include:
- 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)
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).
Treatment for Typhus
Antibiotics most commonly used to treat typhus include:
- doxycycline (preferred treatment)
- cholramphenicol (option for those not pregnant or breastfeeding)
- ciprofloxacin (used for those who are unable to take doxycycline)