An increase this year in the number of cases of flea-borne typhus across multiple areas of the state is prompting the Texas Department of State Health Services to remind people to take precautions to prevent contracting the disease. A health alert issued today asks providers to consider a diagnosis of flea-borne typhus for people with fever and at least one other symptom of the disease. Typhus cases normally peak in Texas between May and July and again in December and January.
Flea-borne typhus, also known as murine typhus, is a bacterial infection (Rickettsia typhi) that most commonly occurs when infected flea feces are scratched into the site of the flea bite or another break in the skin. Inhalation or mucous membrane contact with contaminated, dried flea feces are less common ways to contract the disease. Fleas are infected when they bite animals, such as rodents, opossums and cats, that can maintain and transmit the bacteria.
Early symptoms of flea-borne typhus develop within 14 days of contact with infected fleas and include headache, fever, nausea and body aches. Five or six days after the initial symptoms, a rash that starts on the trunk of the body and spreads to the arms and legs may occur. People should consult with a health care provider as soon as possible to be appropriately tested and treated if they have symptoms of the disease. Flea-borne typhus is easily treated with certain antibiotics, and people will not get it again after they recover.
The best precautions to guard against contracting flea-borne typhus are:
- Keep yards clean so that rodents, opossums and stray cats cannot live there by removing any brush or trash, keeping the grass mowed and keeping firewood off the ground.
- Do not leave pet food out at night as this attracts other animals.
- Prevent rodents from living in houses.
- Treat for fleas with a commercial flea control product before beginning rodent control in houses or yards. Fleas will search for new hosts when rodents die.
- Control the fleas on pets regularly. Ask a veterinarian about flea control products that are safe to use on pets.
- Wear gloves and insect repellent when handling sick or dead animals.
- Use insect repellant when hunting, camping or engaging in any other outdoor activities.