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Alternative names: jail fever, NOT the same as typhoid fever

Type of infection: bacterial

Incubation period: 7 to 12 days

Mortality rate: up to 60% without treatment (epidemic variety)

Vector: fleas, ticks, lice


More than 17,000 Spanish troops died in Granada during a 1489 siege from a new disease that presented with a body rash and delirium. It became common through the jail system in England during the 1700s, which gave it the name "jail fever". Almost a quarter of all prisoners were thought to have died from typhus.

Large outbreaks took place around Europe and America in the centuries to follow. Once it was discovered to spread through fleas and lice, there was a massive campaign to deal with these pests (especially during World War I). Delousing became a common procedure, but there were still many deaths in later periods in situations of poor hygiene and close quarters. Anne Frank died of typhus in a German concentration camp, in one particularly well-known example.  

A vaccine was developed in 1934 by Hans Zissner, which quickly brought the threat of typhus epidemics under control.

Catching Typhus

There are actually two variations of typhus, caused by similar but distinct bacteria. Murine typhus is the less serious of the two, and it is usually spread by fleas from infected animals. Rats are the most common host, but in some parts of the southern USA it can be spread by fleas from skunks, opossums and raccoons as well. The other kind is known as epidemic typhus, and it is spread by lice.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs of murine typhus infection include joint and muscle pains, very high fever (up to 106F), dry cough and nausea. There is also a red rash that will start in the chest area, and spread to the rest of the body. Relatively speaking, this is the less serious form of the disease and it is seldom fatal even when there is no treatment available.

On the other hand, epidemic typhus has additional symptoms of delirium, sensitivity to light, headaches, low blood pressure and the pains associated with the disease are more severe. This is the more serious form of typhus that can have a fatality rate of 60% if untreated.


With antibiotics, typhus is almost completely treatable. The medicines of choice for typhus are doxycycline or tetracycline. If you can't take these, then ciprofoxacin will do.


There is a vaccine to protect against typhus though it is not part of any regular vaccination program. Talk to your doctor, particularly if you plan on traveling to an area where typhus is a problem.

Other preventative methods are to remove any infestations of lice or fleas in your living areas, as well as dealing with any rats in your home. Pets should be treated with insecticide to make sure they are not picking up fleas from the outdoors and bringing them in. If you are handling dead rats (or any potentially risky animal), wear gloves and long sleeves to prevent any flea transfers.

To eliminate spread of epidemic typhus, take care to keep your body free of lice through regular washing and possible treatments of appropriate insecticidal products.

Risk Assessment

Since the disease is already present in the USA, there is a reasonable risk that it may spread if the conditions are right.

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