When to Seek Medical Care for Rabies

Key points

  • Contact your healthcare provider or state or local health department immediately, if you think you've had rabies exposure.
  • Nearly 1 million Americans receive medical attention for an animal bite each year, some of which require rabies-related medical care.
  • Your state or local health department can give guidance on the need for medical care following a potential animal exposure.
Female doctor stands in medical facility wearing a green shirt and stethoscope

When you should seek medical care

While rabies is well controlled in the U.S., over 4 million Americans report being bitten by animals each year. 800,000 receive rabies-related medical care from local or state health departments. Strong public health systems help to rule out the need for costly rabies medical care for many of these bite victims.

Rabies vaccines are complex, expensive, and limited. Each person who may have been exposed to rabies must be assessed quickly to determine if they need the vaccine. People who need the vaccine and don't get it before symptoms start will most likely die, so this assessment is critical. This process also helps control costs and ensure an adequate supply of vaccine by only giving it to people who need it.

Public health and healthcare providers interview bite victims and examine the animal that has bitten them to determine if rabies-related medical care, including vaccine, is needed. They also consider how many animals in the area where the bite occurred have rabies.

Also, when needed and feasible, laboratory experts can conduct rabies tests on the animals to help inform bite-victim medical care, too. For low-risk exposures, like bites from healthy pets, rabies treatment can be delayed for a few days while the animal is monitored.

If you've been in contact with any wildlife or unfamiliar animals, particularly if you've been bitten or scratched, do the following:

  • Wash any wounds immediately with soap and water for 15 minutes to flush out any virus.
  • Talk with a healthcare or public health professional about your risk and if you need rabies-related care.
  • Tell your healthcare provider the type of animal you encountered.
  • Make note of and tell your healthcare provider if you see any signs that the animal is not acting normally.
  • If the animal that bit you is a pet, ask the owner if the animal is up-to-date on their rabies vaccination.

This information is important when deciding if rabies-related care is necessary. Remember, rabies requires urgent medical attention. Decisions to seek care should not be delayed.

What kind of animal did you come in contact with?

Any mammal can get rabies. You should consult a healthcare provider after a bite from any animal. It could be safe to delay rabies-related care, called postexposure prophylaxis, while waiting for the results of a test or observation period. However, if the bite is severe, especially near the head, or if it's from high-risk animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, or foxes, post-exposure prophylaxis should begin right away.