Leptospirosis - Are you at risk?

What is Leptospirosis?
Leptospirosis is an infection frequently found both in domestic and wild animals, which can spread to humans. Leptospirosis in Ireland is usually picked up from rats, although a milder form can be caught from cattle or dogs. Leptospirosis is a notifiable disease in Ireland.

How is it spread?
The infection is spread through contact with rats, or rat, cattle or dog urine or foetal fluids from cattle.

How might I catch it?
If you are in contact with infected urine the bacteria which causes leptospirosis can get into your body through cuts and scratches and through the lining of the mouth, throat and eyes.

Where might I catch it?
Infected urine or contaminated water can be found in sewers, ditches, ponds, canals and slow-flowing rivers and river banks. Rat urine may also contaminate animal feed stuffs on farms.

Who is at risk of Leptospirosis?
People at greatest risk of acquiring leptospirosis include those who fish, swim or use water for other recreational purposes. This would include people who engage in outdoor pursuits that brings them in contact with at-risk water such as canoeing, hiking, pot-holing or golfing.  Occupations at risk would include  veterinary surgeons, farmers, meat inspectors, butchers, abattoir and sewer workers. 

High risk water includes stagnant, dirty-looking or obviously polluted fresh water found in ditches, drains, ponds, lakes or rivers. Sea water poses less risk.

What are the symptoms?
The majority of people have a flu-like illness, with a persistent and severe headache. A few people can develop meningitis and occasionally it can develop into the severe form (Weil's Disease) with liver and kidney failure. This can be fatal in a small proportion of cases.

What precautions should I take?

  • Do not go swimming or boating in water which is obviously polluted
  • Cover any cuts or abrasions with a waterproof dressing while swimming or canoeing
  • Shower thoroughly following water activities
  • Make sure the sporting clothing you wear minimises your contact with water
  • Wash your hands after handling any animal or contaminated clothing and always before eating, drinking or smoking
  • Clean any cuts acquired during swimming, fishing or other near-water activities. Apply first aid as soon as possible
  • Rinsing dogs who have been swimming in high risk water reduces the risk of infection
  • High risk workers should always wear their personal protective equipment and clothing at all times when in high risk situations
  • If you get a flu-like illness within a three week period after engaging in any of these activities you should visit your doctor immediately, and tell her or him of your concerns and possible exposure to dirty or stagnant water.

Last reviewed: 18th May 2017