What is leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects people and animals. It is caused by bacteria of the genus Leptospira.

What are the symptoms of leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis can cause mild to severe disease. Symptoms vary but commonly include fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), skin rash, and red eyes. Severe disease may include meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord), severe respiratory symptoms, and kidney or liver failure.

Symptoms develop in 2 days to 4 weeks after being exposed to the bacteria. The illness can last a few days to 3 weeks or if severe may persist longer. Symptoms generally occur in two phases, with a temporary recovery before more severe symptoms begin.

How is leptospirosis treated?

People with symptoms of leptospirosis should contact a healthcare provider who can test for the disease. If an infection is confirmed, it will likely be treated with antibiotics, such as doxycycline or penicillin. Treatment is most effective when started as soon as possible.

How do people get leptospirosis?

The bacteria that cause leptospirosis are spread through the urine of infected animals, which can get into water or soil and can survive there for weeks to months. Some wild and domestic animals that spread leptospirosis include rodents, raccoons, opossums, cattle, pigs, horses, sheep, goats, and dogs (see canine leptospirosis). When these animals are infected, they may have no symptoms of the disease. Infected animals may continue to excrete the bacteria into the environment continuously or every once in a while for a few months up to several years.

People can become infected through:

  • Contact with urine or body fluids (except saliva) of infected animals.
  • Contact with water, soil, or food contaminated by urine or body fluids of infected animals.
  • Drinking contaminated water.

The bacteria can enter the body through skin or mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth), especially if the skin is broken from a cut or scratch. Outbreaks of leptospirosis are usually caused by exposure to contaminated water, such as floodwaters. Leptospirosis is rarely spread from person to person.

Who's at risk of getting leptospirosis?

Leptospirosis occurs worldwide, but is most common in temperate or tropical climates. There is always a risk of infection for people who have contact with infected animals or soil and water where the bacteria are present.

People who work outdoors or with animals may be at increased risk for infection, such as farmers, sewer workers, slaughterhouse workers, veterinarians, fishermen, dairy farmers, and military personnel.

Those involved in outdoor recreational activities may also face an increased risk. Leptospirosis has been associated with swimming, wading, rafting, or kayaking in contaminated lakes and rivers.

In Washington State, between zero to five cases of leptospirosis infections are reported each year. Most infections are due to recreational water exposure in Washington or during travel.

How can leptospirosis be prevented?

  • Avoid contact with animal urine or body fluids, especially if there are any cuts or scrapes on your skin. If contact occurs, wash skin with soap and water.
  • Don't swim in, walk in, or swallow water that may contain animal urine.
  • Persons with occupational or recreational exposure to potentially infected animals, water, or soil should wear protective clothing, boots, and gloves.
  • Rodent-proof buildings. Learn more about rodent control.
  • See your veterinarian about vaccinating your pets against this disease. Learn more about preventing leptospirosis in pets from the CDC.