Typhus refers to a family of diseases spread through the bites of lice, fleas, ticks, and other insects. There are several versions of typhus, which are very different diseases:
- Epidemic typhus is rare worldwide today and extremely rare in the U.S. In this country, flying squirrels can carry the louse that transmits epidemic typhus. Infection in people is almost unheard of.
- Scrub typhus is an ongoing problem in Asia and part of Australia. People catch scrub typhus through the bite of a chigger, which injects a tiny mite that carries bacteria that cause the illness.
- Murine typhus is spread by fleas carried on rats and is present in the U.S. It’s possible for outdoor pets (cats and dogs) to encounter those fleas and bring them inside. Murine typhus might occur regularly in Texas and California; the exact rate isn’t known.
Common symptoms of typhus include:
- Rapid breathing
- Muscle aches
If untreated, epidemic and scrub typhus can be severe or life-threatening. Murine typhus is almost always mild and goes away on its own; it may go undiagnosed or be misdiagnosed as a viral infection.
If you live in the U.S., typhus should be near the bottom of the list of health threats to worry about. Avoiding rats and keeping pets indoors and treated against fleas and ticks should almost eliminate the risk of serious illness.
Typhus is usually curable with antibiotics, once it is recognized or suspected. People traveling to parts of Asia where scrub typhus is widespread may benefit from taking antibiotics for prevention.
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