Typhoid fever

Introduction

Typhoid fever is an infection caused by bacteria that can spread throughout the body. Without prompt treatment, it can cause serious complications and can be fatal.

It is caused by a bacterium called Salmonella typhi, which is related to, but not the same as, the bacteria that cause salmonella food poisoning.

Read more about the causes of typhoid fever.

Typhoid fever is very contagious. An infected person can pass the bacteria out of their body in their faeces when they have a bowel movement or, less commonly, when they urinate.

If someone else eats food or drinks water that has been contaminated with a small amount of infected faeces or urine, they can contract typhoid fever.

Who is affected by typhoid fever?

Due to the way the infection is spread, typhoid fever is most common in parts of the world that have poor levels of sanitation and limited access to clean water.

Typhoid fever can be found throughout the developing world, particularly in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Children and younger adults are thought to be most at risk of developing typhoid fever. This may be because their immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection and illness) is still developing.

Typhoid fever is uncommon in Scotland. Most people who contract it are thought to have developed the infection while visiting relatives in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Typhoid symptoms

The initial symptoms of typhoid fever include:

  • a fever that gradually rises before settling at around 39–40C (103–104F)
  • abdominal pain
  • a dull headache

The symptoms continue to get worse. As the condition progresses, the risk of developing possibly fatal complications increases (see below).

Read more about the symptoms of typhoid fever.

Treating typhoid fever

Typhoid fever requires prompt treatment with antibiotics. If diagnosed in its early stages, the infection is likely to be mild and can usually be treated at home with a 7- to 14-day course of antibiotics.

More serious cases of typhoid fever usually require admission to hospital so that antibiotic injections can be given.

Read more about treating typhoid fever.

Complications of typhoid fever

One in 10 people with untreated typhoid fever will develop one or more serious complications. Complications usually occur in the third week after symptoms start.

Complications can include internal bleeding or a section of the digestive system or bowel splitting open and causing widespread infection.

Read more about the complications of typhoid fever.

Typhoid fever vaccination

Two vaccines are available that provide limited protection against typhoid fever. Vaccination is recommended for anyone who is planning to travel to parts of the world where the typhoid is widespread (see above).

However, as the vaccines only provide limited protection, it is also important to follow some precautions when travelling, such as only drinking bottled water and not eating raw vegetables.

Read more about preventing typhoid fever.

Outlook

If typhoid fever is treated promptly with antibiotics, the outlook is very good. Less than 1 in 100 people will die as a result of a complication of the infection, and deaths from typhoid fever are now virtually unheard of in Scotland.

If typhoid fever is not treated, the outlook is much worse. If complications occur, they are often fatal. People who survive complications of typhoid fever are often left with permanent physical or mental disabilities. 

Last updated: 31 January 2012

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