Leptospirosis is a type of occupational infectious disease caused by the bacteria Leptospira. It’s useful to know how to reduce your chances of getting leptospirosis and what to do if you get it.
- You usually get leptospirosis by coming into contact with the bacteria Leptospira.
- Most people develop symptoms, including diarrhoea, fever, muscle pain, cough, tiredness and flu-like symptoms.
- Symptoms usually start within 2 to 14 days of getting exposed to the bacteria, but it could be as long as up to 30 days before you have symptoms.
- You will need antibiotics for treatment of leptospirosis.
- Prevention involves following handwashing guidelines and wearing personal protective equipment in a high-risk environment.
What are the symptoms of leptospirosis?
Symptoms can range from minor flu-like symptoms flu to serious illness needing hospital admission. It can be fatal.
The common symptoms of leptospirosis are fever, chills, cough, runny nose, muscle pain, red eye, tiredness, tummy pain, sore throat, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting rash, and yellow discoloration of your eye. More serious symptoms could be bleeding from your eyes, nose, mouth or internal organs such as lungs or kidneys.
How is leptospirosis diagnosed?
Leptospirosis is diagnosed through blood tests to either test for the presence of antibodies or to detect the bacteria in your blood.
How is leptospirosis treated?
It is important to see your doctor if you think you may have leptospirosis. Early treatment can prevent the illness from getting severe.
You will need antibiotics as the treatment for leptospirosis. Depending on whether your illness is mild or serious, you may get oral antibiotics or may need hospital admission to get antibiotics through your vein.
You may also need dialysis or breathing support through a ventilator machine if you have serious complications.
How is leptospirosis spread?
Leptospirosis spreads from animals to human. Leptospira bacteria live in the kidneys of animals such as rats, hedgehogs, possums or farm animals, and are excreted in their urine. You get infected through contact with the urine of these animals or water that is contaminated by infected urine. The bacteria enters your body through cuts on your skin or through the internal surfaces of your nose, mouth and eyes. This can happen when you:
- work in a farm
- work in forests
- come into contact with an animal's urine
- go tramping or hunting
- swim in rivers, ponds or lakes
- work with sick animals
- eat or drink contaminated food or water
- smoke, eat or drink without washing your hands after contact with animals.
How can I prevent leptospirosis?
You can prevent getting leptospirosis by:
- wearing personal protective equipment in high-risk workplaces, such as farms, vets, forests or the bush
- washing hands after animal contact and before you eat, drink or smoke
- following animal vaccination programmes (there is no vaccine for humans)
- avoiding swimming in ponds, lakes or rivers
- avoiding coming into contact with animals' urine
- covering and cleaning any cuts on your skin.
The following links provide further information about leptospirosis. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.
Leptospirosis overview Leptospirosis New Zealand
Prevention and control of leptospirosis – good practice guideline Worksafe NZ, 2015
Leptospirosis DermNet NZ
Leptospirosis (Weil's disease) NHS, UK, 2017