Typhus: Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Derrick Arrington

Derrick has taught biology and chemistry at both the high school and college level. He has a master's degree in science education.

Diseases have plagued civilizations all throughout history. Typhus is a name given to three different diseases with similar characteristics. In this lesson, we will explore typhus, its symptoms, and treatment.

Definition of Typhus

Typhus is the name given to three different diseases that are spread by lice, fleas, or ticks that carry the bacteria Rickettsia. There are three recognized types of typhus: Epidemic typhus, Murine typhus, and Queensland tick typhus.

Epidemic typhus gets its name because it often causes epidemics after wars and natural disasters. It is caused by the bacteria known as Rickettsia prowazekii that is transmitted by human body lice. The louse feeds on a human who is infected with the bacteria. The bacteria is able to grow in the stomach and intestines of the louse. It is then excreted in the waste of the louse once it has moved on to another person. This infects the other person with the disease when they scratch or touch a wound after being bitten by the louse. These conditions of wounded and weakened individuals are often prevalent after wars or natural disasters, which provides the optimal conditions for the spread of the disease.

Murine typhus is also commonly known as endemic typhus. This form of typhus is transmitted by fleas that normally travel on rats. This type of typhus is caused by the bacteria Rickettsia typhi. Humans become infected when a flea excretes waste on them and they scratch the feces into a wound. This type of typhus is commonly found in southern California, Texas, and Hawaii.

Queensland tick typhus occurs in the Queensland area of Australia. It is caused by the bacteria Rickettsia australis. This bacteria is often found living in the guts of ticks. It is transmitted by ticks that bite humans.

Symptoms of Typhus

Typhus gets its name from a Greek word meaning 'smoky' or 'hazy,' which is often said to describe the mental state of a person infected with any form of typhus. The forms of typhus are characterized by numerous symptoms.

Epidemic typhus is often characterized by chills that cause the entire body to shiver, a raspy cough, brief periods of delirium, fevers up to 104 degrees, joint pain, low blood pressure, sensitivity to light and severe headaches.

Murine typhus is known to cause abdominal pain, backaches, rashes on the mid body, fevers up to 106 degrees, dry coughs, nausea, headaches, and joint pain.

Queensland tick typhus is known to cause headaches, low fevers, bloodshot eyes, and rashes on the palms and feet.

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