Is Q Fever?
Q fever, also called query fever, is a bacterial infection caused
by the bacteria Coxiella burnetii. The bacteria are most commonly
found in cattle, sheep, and goats around the world. Humans typically get Q
fever when they breathe in dust that was contaminated by infected animals. Farmers,
veterinarians, and people who work with these animals in labs are at the
highest risk of being infected.
The disease may cause mild symptoms similar to the flu. However,
many people have no symptoms at all. Mild forms of the disease may clear up in
a few weeks without any treatment.
In rare cases, a more serious form of disease develops if the
infection is chronic, which means it persists for six months. A more serious
form also can develop if the infection is recurrent, which means it comes back.
People with heart valve problems or weak immune systems are at the highest risk
of developing these types of Q fever. Chronic Q fever is very serious because
it can damage a person’s vital organs, including the:
More severe or chronic forms of Q fever can be treated with
antibiotics. Those at risk for Q fever can prevent the disease by disinfecting
contaminated areas and washing their hands thoroughly.
Are the Symptoms of Q Fever?
Symptoms of Q fever don’t typically appear until about two to
three weeks after exposure to the bacteria. However, it’s possible that you
will have the infection and not show any symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they’re
Symptoms can vary significantly from one person to another. Common
symptoms of mild Q fever may include:
- a high fever
- chills or sweats
- a cough
- chest pain while breathing
- a headache
- clay-colored stools
- abdominal pain
- muscle pain
- shortness of breath
A rash is also a symptom, but it’s not common.
Causes Q Fever?
Q fever is caused by a bacterial infection with a bacterium
called Coxiella burnetii. The bacteria are typically found in
cattle, sheep, and goats. The animals transmit the bacteria in:
- fluids from giving birth
These substances can dry inside a barnyard where contaminated
dust can float in the air. Humans get Q fever when they breathe in the
In rare cases, drinking unpasteurized milk can cause infection.
The bacteria cannot be spread directly from one human to another. The exact
frequency of Q fever isn’t known because most cases aren’t reported.
Is at Risk for Q Fever?
Since the bacteria usually infect cattle, sheep, and goats,
people who are at highest risk for infection include:
- people who work around sheep
- people who work in the dairy industry
- people who work in a meat processing facilities
- people who work in research laboratories with
- people who work in research laboratories
with C. burnetii
- people who live close to a farm
Is Q Fever Diagnosed?
It’s difficult for a doctor to diagnose Q fever based on symptoms
Your doctor may suspect you have Q fever if you work or live in
an environment that puts you at high risk for exposure and you have any of the flu-like
symptoms or serious complications of Q fever. Your doctor might ask you
questions about your job or if you’ve recently been exposed to barnyard or farm
Q fever is diagnosed with a blood antibody test. According to the
Centers for Disease
Control (CDC), an antibody test frequently appears negative in the first
seven to 10 days of sickness. Your doctor should use their best judgment to
decide whether or not to begin treatment based on suspicion alone.
If your doctor suspects you have a chronic infection, they may
order a chest X-ray and other tests to look at your lungs and a test called an
echocardiogram to look at your heart valves.
Are the Complications of Q Fever?
Sometimes Q fever can persist or come back. This can lead to more
serious complications if the infection affects your:
You’re at high risk of developing chronic Q fever if you:
- have an existing heart valve disease
- have blood vessel abnormalities
- have a weakened immune system
- are pregnant
According to the CDC, chronic Q fever
occurs in less than 5 percent of infected patients. The most common and serious
complication of Q fever is a heart condition called bacterial
endocarditis. Endocarditis is
the inflammation of the inside lining of the heart chambers and heart valves,
which is called the endocardium. This can cause damage to your heart valves and
may be fatal if it isn’t treated.
Other serious complications are less common. They include:
- pneumonia or other lung issues
- pregnancy problems, such as miscarriage, low
birth weight, premature birth, and stillbirth
- hepatitis, which is an inflammation of the liver
- meningitis, which is an inflammation of the
membrane around your brain or spinal cord
Is Q Fever Treated?
Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms.
The milder forms of Q fever usually resolve within a few weeks
without any treatment at all.
More Severe Infection
Your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic. Doxycycline is the
antibiotic of choice for all adults and children with severe Q fever. You
should begin taking it immediately if Q fever is suspected to be the cause of
your illness, even before laboratory results are available.
Standard duration of treatment is two to three weeks. The symptoms,
including fever, should subside within 72 hours. Failure to respond to
doxycycline may suggest that the illness isn’t Q fever.
Antibiotics are typically given for 18 months if you have chronic
Is the Outlook After Treatment?
Antibiotics are usually very effective, and fatality from the
disease is very uncommon. People with endocarditis, however, need an early
diagnosis and antibiotics for at least 18 months for a successful outcome.
Can Q Fever Be Prevented?
A vaccine has been successful in Australia for people who work in
high-risk environments, but it isn’t currently available in the United States.
If you’re at high risk for Q fever and you aren’t vaccinated, you
should take the following preventive steps:
- Properly disinfect and decontaminate exposed
- Properly dispose of all birth materials after a
livestock animal has given birth.
- Wash your hands properly.
- Quarantine infected animals.
- Make sure the milk you drink is pasteurized.
- Test animals routinely for infection.
- Restrict the airflow from barnyards and animal
holding facilities to other areas.