May 9, 2016: Typhoid fever is a bacterial infection that can spread throughout the body, affecting many organs. Without prompt treatment, it can cause serious complications and can be fatal.
It’s caused by a bacterium called Salmonella typhi, which is related to the bacteria that cause salmonella food poisoning.
Typhoid fever is highly contagious. An infected person can pass the bacteria out of their body in their stools (faeces) or, less commonly, in their urine.
If someone else eats food or drinks water that’s been contaminated with a small amount of infected faeces or urine, they can become infected with the bacteria and develop typhoid fever.
Typhoid fever is most common in parts of the world that have poor sanitation and limited access to clean water (at the bottom of this page is a list of high-risk areas).
Worldwide, children 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. However, children with typhoid fever tend to have milder symptoms than adults.
Typhoid fever is uncommon in the UK, with an estimated 500 cases occurring each year. In most of these cases, the person developed the infection while visiting relatives in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. However, you’re also at risk of developing the infection if you visit Asia, Africa and South America.
Signs and symptoms of typhoid fever
Common symptoms of typhoid fever include:
- a high temperature that can reach 39-40C (103-104F)
- stomach pain
- constipation or diarrhoea
If typhoid fever isn’t treated, the symptoms will continue to get worse over the following weeks and the risk of developing potentially fatal complications will increase.
How typhoid fever is treated
Typhoid fever requires prompt treatment with antibiotics. If diagnosed at an early stage, the infection is likely to be mild and can usually be treated at home with a 7- to 14-day course of antibiotic tablets.
More serious cases of typhoid fever usually require admission to hospital, so antibiotic injections can be given.
With prompt antibiotic treatment, most people will start to feel better within a few days and serious complications are very rare. Deaths from typhoid fever are now virtually unheard of in the UK.
If typhoid fever isn’t treated, it’s estimated that up to one in five people with the condition will die. Some of those who survive will have complications caused by the infection.
Typhoid fever vaccination
In the UK, two vaccines are available that can provide some protection against typhoid fever. These involve either having a single injection or taking three capsules over alternate days.
Vaccination is recommended for anyone planning to travel to parts of the world where typhoid fever is widespread (see below). It’s particularly important if you’re planning to live or work closely with local people.
However, as neither vaccine offers 100% protection, it’s also important to follow some precautions when travelling. For example, you should only drink bottled or boiled water, and avoid foods that could potentially be contaminated.
The areas with the highest rates of typhoid fever are:
- the Indian subcontinent
- South and South East Asia
- South America
- the Middle East
- Central America
When travelling to a foreign country, it’s a good idea to make a list of relevant contact details and telephone numbers, in case of an emergency.