Why get a rabies shot?
Rabies is mainly a disease found among animals, but humans can get rabies if an infected animal bites them.
Rabies is a severe disease caused by the rabies virus that spreads through the body via the central nervous system. Ultimately, that's the part of the body — the brain and spinal cord — that's attacked by the virus. If a person develops rabies, it's almost always fatal.
The rabies vaccine generally is given to people who have come into contact with an affected animal or people who are at a high risk of getting infected with rabies, such as a veterinarian or an animal handler.
Human rabies is rare in the United States. Only 55 cases have been diagnosed since 1990. However, thousands of people are treated each year for possible exposure to rabies after animal bites.
What happens when you get a rabies shot?
Several years ago, treatment for rabies included 21 injections into a person's stomach. It was extremely painful and involved a long needle. However, since the early 1980s, there's a much different rabies vaccine to treat humans for rabies exposure.
Generally, to treat rabies, you're given a dose of human rabies immune globulin, which provides immediate antibodies until your body can respond to the vaccine and produce its own antibodies.
You're also given four doses of rabies vaccine. Generally, you're given a shot on the day of the exposure, and then again on days three, seven and 14. The vaccine is given in a muscle, usually in the upper arm. This set of vaccinations has proved to be highly effective at preventing rabies if given as soon as possible after an exposure.
If you have previously received post-exposure vaccinations or received pre-exposure vaccinations, only two doses of vaccine — on the day of exposure and then three days later — are generally needed. Human rabies immune globulin is not required. Your doctor should be able to guide you through the process.
Does it hurt?
It will depend on your pain tolerance. During your initial treatment, a health care professional will put human rabies immune globulin in the area where you were bitten. This can be painful and can require quite a bit of medicine being placed in and around the wound site.
What are the risk factors?
The risk of developing problems associated with the rabies vaccine is not common, but it's possible.
You could develop soreness or itching where the shot is given. You also could experience headache, muscle aches and dizziness. About 6 percent of people who get the vaccine experience hives, pain in their joints and fever.
Other nervous system disorders, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, have been reported after rabies vaccine. This happens so rarely that it's not known whether vaccine recipients developed these disorders because of the vaccine.
What's the recovery time?
Generally, as long as you don't develop rabies, you should feel OK while receiving the rabies vaccine. If you start to develop any complications, you should contact your health care provider.
Sources: Kristy Bradley, state public health veterinarian and state epidemiologist at the Oklahoma State Department of Health; U.S. National Library of Medicine; the Mayo Clinic; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.