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Can humans get rabies naturally?

Yes, humans can get rabies naturally without being bitten by an infected animal. Here is a quick overview of how rabies transmission works in humans:

How is rabies transmitted to humans?

Rabies is mainly transmitted to humans through the saliva of infected animals. The most common ways humans get infected with rabies are:

  • Being bitten by a rabid animal like a dog, bat, raccoon, fox or skunk.
  • Getting saliva from an infected animal in open wounds or mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth)
  • Less commonly, inhaling viral particles in the air in closed spaces with high virus concentrations (caves with bats)

Can humans get rabies without being bitten?

While rare, humans can get rabies without being bitten in the following cases:

  • Receiving infected organs during transplant surgery – There have been over 20 cases of rabies transmission through organ transplants using infected donor organs.
  • Exposure of open wounds to saliva or neural tissue – If saliva or nervous system tissue of a rabid animal enters open cuts or wounds, rabies can be transmitted without a bite.
  • Mucous membrane exposure – Rabies virus can enter through the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth if exposed to large amounts of virus-laden saliva or neural tissue.
  • Inhaling viral particles in confined spaces – There are rare cases of rabies contracted by inhaling aerosolized virus in caves with large bat colonies.

How many rabies cases are from non-bite transmission?

Non-bite transmission accounts for only about 2% of rabies deaths globally. Some statistics on non-bite transmission:

  • Organ transplants have caused over 20 rabies cases worldwide.
  • Rare cases from mucous membrane exposure have occurred in laboratories or caves.
  • No cases have been confirmed from inhaling airborne virus particles alone.

So while possible, rabies from means other than a bite is extremely rare. Bites account for over 99% of rabies transmissions to humans.

What are the symptoms of rabies in humans?

After entering the body, the rabies virus travels to the brain through motor and sensory nerves. Symptoms usually take 2-12 weeks to show up. Early symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tingling or pain at the bite site

As the virus reaches the brain and multiplies, advanced neurological symptoms appear like:

  • Hallucinations
  • Paralysis
  • Agitation
  • Seizures
  • Hydrophobia (fear of water)
  • Insomnia

Once clinical symptoms manifest, the infection is almost always fatal. Death usually occurs within 2-10 days from the start of advanced symptoms.

Can humans recover from rabies?

Recovery from rabies after symptoms start is extremely rare – less than 20 documented cases worldwide. Once the rabies virus reaches the brain and symptoms appear, it is nearly 100% fatal. Early preventive treatment is the only effective way to treat a rabid bite and prevent development of rabies in humans.

How to prevent rabies from non-bite exposure

If you may have been exposed to rabies virus without a bite, quick medical assessment and preventive treatment are crucial. Steps to take:

  1. Thoroughly wash any wounds, cuts or mucous membranes exposed to possibly infected saliva or neural tissue.
  2. See a doctor immediately to assess if rabies post-exposure prophylaxis is needed.
  3. If warranted, receive rabies immune globulin and 5 doses of rabies vaccine over 28 days.
  4. Notify relevant transplant centers if you received an organ transplant overseas.

With timely preventive treatment, potential rabies infection can be stopped before symptoms develop.


While rare, rabies can be acquired without a bite through organ transplants, mucous membrane exposure, or inhaling viral particles. However, over 99% of rabies cases are transmitted through animal bites. If you may have been exposed to rabies without a bite, urgently seek medical care to receive life-saving preventive treatment before onset of symptoms.