Can you survive a bat bite?

Bats are often feared and misunderstood creatures. While most bats do not bother humans, on rare occasions, people may have negative encounters with them. One concern surrounding bats is the possibility of being bitten and contracting diseases like rabies. So what should you do if you are bitten by a bat? With the right precautions, a bat bite is very survivable.

What are the risks of a bat bite?

The biggest risk from a bat bite is rabies exposure. Rabies is a deadly virus that infects the central nervous system. It causes inflammation of the brain and can lead to terrifying symptoms like aggression, hallucinations, and problems swallowing. Without treatment, rabies is almost always fatal.

Bats are the most common source of human rabies infection in the United States. However, the chances of this happening are still extremely low. Only about 6% of bats submitted for testing are positive for rabies. And bats play an important role in ecosystems by eating insects and pollinating plants.

Even if a bat is rabid, transmission is not guaranteed from a bite. The rabies virus is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal. A bite may not inject enough saliva for infection. According to the CDC, most people who are exposed to rabies do not develop the disease if they get treatment in time.

What should you do if bitten by a bat?

Here are the key steps to take if you are bitten by a bat:

  • Wash the bite area thoroughly with soap and water. This can help reduce the amount of virus if present.
  • Capture the bat safely if possible. Have the animal tested by local health officials.
  • Contact your doctor immediately to assess your risk and get advice on getting treatment.
  • Get the post-exposure rabies treatment if recommended. This involves getting the rabies vaccine and possibly an injection of rabies antibodies called Rabies Immune Globulin (RIG).
  • Keep an eye out for any symptoms of rabies. Seek medical care immediately if you develop symptoms.

As long as you follow these steps, you have an excellent chance of coming through a bat bite without developing rabies. Still, it’s best to avoid bats and contact with wild animals when possible.

What does rabies post-exposure treatment involve?

Post-exposure rabies treatment consists of two main parts:

  • Rabies vaccine: This is a series of four rabies shots given over 14 days. The vaccine helps your body’s immune system recognize and fight the rabies virus. It’s highly effective when administered promptly after an exposure.
  • Rabies immune globulin (RIG): This is a rabies antibody injection that provides immediate short-term protection. It neutralizes any rabies virus that may have entered your body from the bite before the vaccine takes effect. Not everyone needs RIG.

This protocol is extremely successful at preventing rabies if started soon after an exposure. According to the WHO, prompt post-exposure treatment has been proven to prevent rabies in humans if given before symptoms occur.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

The rabies virus has an incubation period that averages 1-3 months but can range from under a week to over a year after exposure. The initial symptoms are vague and may include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness or discomfort near the bite area

As the disease progresses, more alarming symptoms appear related to brain inflammation. This includes:

  • Hallucinations
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Paralysis
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Fear of water
  • Excess salivation
  • Numbness

The symptoms often progress rapidly once they appear. Eventually, rabies can cause convulsions, coma, and death usually within a few days after the onset of severe symptoms.

How can rabies be prevented if treatment is delayed?

It’s crucial to get medical assessment and treatment promptly after any bat exposure. Unfortunately, some people may delay getting care. In these cases, rabies can still be prevented if treatment is started before symptoms begin.

The Milwaukee Protocol is an experimental approach that has been used in some patients with delayed treatment. It involves:

  • Inducing a coma to protect the brain
  • Using antiviral drugs
  • Administering rabies vaccines

There are only a handful of documented cases of patient survival with the Milwaukee Protocol. Outcomes are often poor due to severe brain damage. Still, it offers a tiny chance of success in dire cases. Prevention with timely treatment remains much more effective.

Can you get rabies without a bite?

The rabies virus is mainly transmitted through bites from infected animals. But there are a few other routes of exposure to consider:

  • Scratches: Even superficial scratches can potentially transmit rabies through infected saliva.
  • Eyes, nose, or mouth: Splashes of saliva to these areas, for example from a bat’s wings, may rarely cause rabies.
  • Organ transplants: Rabies contracted from infected donated organs has occurred in a few cases.

Even without a recognized bite, rabies post-exposure treatment may be recommended if there is suspicion of exposure. For example, waking up to a bat in your room warrants treatment since a bite can be imperceptible.

Can you survive rabies once symptoms appear?

Unfortunately, there are no proven treatments that can cure a patient once rabies symptoms appear. Rabies has an almost 100% fatality rate at this advanced stage. However, there are exceptional cases of humans surviving even after onset of symptoms.

To date, about 15 people have survived symptomatic rabies, usually with severe disabilities. In most of these cases, patients received the Milwaukee Protocol or a similar treatment regimen. The genetic profiles that enabled these rare survivors are not yet understood.

While survival past this point is extremely unlikely, a couple factors that may improve the slim chances include:

  • Good intensive care support
  • Young age
  • Good general health
  • A strong early immune response

However, relying on last-ditch medical interventions after symptoms start is not advisable. The most effective way to beat rabies is prevention via prompt post-exposure treatment.

Can home remedies cure rabies?

There are no home remedies capable of curing rabies once a person develops symptoms. Traditional medicine, folk remedies, and unproven treatments do not prevent the progression or provide a cure for rabies.

Some people may try things like:

  • Herbal treatments
  • Homeopathic dilutions
  • Vitamin C megadosing
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Spiritual healing

But there’s no evidence that any of these approaches eliminate rabies once present. The mildest early symptoms can still progress to severe brain inflammation and death.

In countries where access to modern rabies treatment is limited, desperate patients and families often try these therapies. Unfortunately, the outcome is almost always the same – rabies is fatal without proper medical care.

Does rabies cause fear of water?

Yes, one classic symptom of rabies in humans and animals is hydrophobia or fear of water. The underlying mechanism involves painful throat and mouth spasms when attempting to swallow liquids.

It arises due to rabies virus infection of nerves that control swallowing and the gag reflex. In response to attempts to drink, the throat muscles go into uncontrolled spasms. This causes choking, gagging, and extreme discomfort, which the brain associates with water.

Rabid animals like dogs may exhibit hesitancy or refusal to drink. And late-stage infected humans often panic or become agitated by the sight of liquids. This tragic symptom leads to dangerous impairment of the ability to swallow and intense thirst.

How long can you survive with rabies untreated?

Once rabies symptoms begin, survival is extremely unlikely and the disease typically progresses rapidly to death. Most patients die within 7-10 days after the first symptoms appear. But the survival period depends on several factors:

  • Bite site – centrally located bites may progress faster
  • Viral variant – some strains may act quicker than others
  • Initial immune response – early antibody production may slow progression slightly
  • Patient age and health – younger and fitter patients may live marginally longer
  • Supportive hospital care – intensive care can prolong the terminal phase

The shortest reported survival has been as little as 3 days after symptom onset. At the other extreme, a few patients with extensive medical support have lived for up to 6 weeks before dying of rabies.

Do bats carry more diseases than other animals?

Some key facts about diseases related to bats include:

  • Bats can harbor many viruses besides rabies, but few are transmitted to humans.
  • Rabies causes the most human deaths – around 59,000 per year globally.
  • Other viruses linked to bats include Ebola, SARS, MERS, and SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing COVID-19.
  • But direct transmission to humans is quite rare for these other viruses.
  • Mosquitoes actually transmit far more pathogens and cause more human deaths overall.

So while bats carry some fearsome viruses, they do not directly infect people as often as popularly imagined. Simple precautions like avoiding handling bats and getting post-exposure treatment if bitten can prevent almost all health risks.

What should you not do if bitten by a bat?

Here are some things you should avoid doing if bitten by a bat to keep yourself safe:

  • Don’t ignore the bite or delay seeking medical advice. The longer treatment is postponed, the lower your chances of preventing rabies.
  • Don’t try to treat the bite yourself with folk remedies or unproven methods. Stick to medical advice.
  • Don’t just wash the bite area – use antibacterial soap and a virucidal disinfectant if possible.
  • Don’t try to capture the bat yourself if it may put you at further risk of bites.
  • Don’t dismiss symptoms if you feel unwell after an exposure – seek care even for vague symptoms.
  • Don’t decline or interrupt post-exposure rabies treatment if prescribed by your doctor.

Staying calm but vigilant, and promptly following medical guidance, gives you the best chance of recovering safely from a bat encounter. And remember to contact animal control to have the bat tested for rabies.

Are bat bites dangerous to pets?

Bat bites can certainly be dangerous to cats, dogs, ferrets, and livestock animals like horses and cattle. However, the principles of prevention, treatment, and risk reduction are similar as for humans:

  • Have any bite evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
  • Report bats or unusual behaviors indicating rabies to local animal control.
  • Administer rabies booster vaccine promptly after potential exposures.
  • Use extra caution handling bats or unknown wildlife.
  • Educate children to avoid touching bats and to tell an adult.

Ensuring pets receive regular rabies vaccinations is also crucial. There is no defined post-exposure “treatment” for pets, just strict quarantine and observation along with booster vaccination. Unfortunately euthanasia is often recommended if symptoms develop, due to low prospects of recovery.


Bat bites can certainly be alarming, but the risk of rabies can be minimized with appropriate medical care. Thoroughly washing the wound, getting vaccinated, and monitoring for symptoms will provide protection against rabies in the vast majority of cases. While still scary, a bite from a rabid bat is survivable for both humans and pets with proper prevention and prompt treatment.

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