Leptospirosis, often called lepto, is a disease caused by bacteria called Leptospira which live in the kidneys of many types of animals.  People get infected by contact with animal urine infected with Leptospira.

The bacteria enters the body through cuts or scratches in the skin  and splashes into the eyes.

To reduce the risk of getting leptospirosis:

  • Avoid direct contact with rats and other feral animals and their urine, especially in sheds or other buildings.
  • Cover any cuts or scratches when touching farm animals and wash your hands afterwards.
  • Avoid swimming, wading or other recreational activities like kayaking or fishing in contaminated water. Avoid flood water or stagnant water in rural areas as it may have this bacteria.

If you have symptoms that could be leptospirosis call Healthline on 0800 611 116 or see your doctor or practice nurse.

People living or working on rural properties, farms and in meat processing are most at risk from the bacteria. The bacteria can be found in farm animals, vermin and feral animals like rats, possums or hedgehogs.

The next greatest risk is from contact with stagnant water which has been contaminated with cattle or rat urine, especially if you have open wounds.

Any fresh or untreated water in rural areas may have this bacteria – ponds, canals, lakes, rivers, creeks and flood water. There’s no risk of infection from sea water.

Swimming or wading in contaminated waters pose the greatest risk to most people. Fishing, kayaking and other recreational water activities present a lower risk, but even a splash of contaminated water in a cut, a wound or eyes can be risky.

The main symptoms of leptospirosis are:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Sore muscles
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea (runny poo)
  • Stomach pain
  • Red eyes
  • Cough
  • Jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes)
  • Vomiting
  • Rash

Symptoms develop about 10 days after exposure to the Leptospira bacteria.

If you have symptoms

Please see your doctor immediately and mention that you may have been exposed if you have been near stagnant water, floodwater, farm animals or soil that may have been infected by animals.

Early treatment is essential to stop the illness from becoming severe.  

It is unusual for leptospirosis to spread from one person to another, so you do not have to take time off work or school if you feel well enough.

Some people experience persistent symptoms for a long time after the initial infection. Discuss this with your doctor.

People who have had leptospirosis are usually immune to the particular strain of bacteria they were infected with, but will not be immune to other strains and could get infected again.

To reduce your risk of leptospirosis

Take precautions before you go near untreated water like floodwater, lakes, ponds and rivers. Assess the risk of contamination when considering entering fresh water. Be particularly aware of stagnant or floodwater.

If you are in contact with farm animals, you should cover any cuts and wash your hands after contact and before you eat, drink or smoke.

Wear gloves and cover open wounds if cleaning up soil or buildings after floods or where feral animals might have been.

Leptospirosis is a notifiable disease. This means that health professionals or laboratories will inform us when someone has it. This allows us to look for sources, monitor the number of people who have the disease and give advice on how it can be prevented. 

Last updated 18.10.2023

For health advice call Healthline for free anytime on 0800 611 116
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