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Expert Q&A

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Are rabies shots needed for any bat exposure?

Asked by Dan, South Carolina

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During a recent family trip to the mountains, our kids, who were sleeping in the attic, were awakened by a bat flying around the room. We called our doctor, who told us to go to the emergency room, where the kids got the rabies vaccine and immune globulin. Was that really necessary?

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Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

Thanks for your question. In hindsight (such as following a negative rabies test on the animal in question) it often does seem that rabies prevention shots are unnecessary.

However, doing the injections as a precaution is a very reasonable recommendation. That's because rabies infection is almost always fatal without the treatment.

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Fortunately, most animals are not infected with rabies, so transmission to humans is rare, affecting just a handful of people every year. Bats are one of the most common animals that transmit rabies in the United States, along with raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes.

The rabies virus can be found in all parts of the country except for Hawaii.

If there is concern about an exposure to rabies, prophylaxis consisting of rabies immune globulin (an injection that contains human antibodies against the rabies virus) and rabies vaccine (four injections over the course of two weeks) is recommended.

This treatment should be started as soon as possible after the exposure, ideally within 24 hours.

Bat bites reportedly feel like sharp jabs and may leave tiny marks that look like scratches. Most adults who were awake during the time of a bat bite will know they have been bitten.

However, if a person is uncertain whether a bite or scratch from a bat occurred (such as if a bat was found in the room of a sleeping person, a child, a person with mental disabilities or someone who is impaired by the influence of alcohol or drugs -- basically anyone who is unable to give an accurate report about a bite), the rabies prophylaxis regimen is recommended.

Follow Dr. Shu on Twitter @LivingWellDoc

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