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Brucellosis in Humans – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Updated on December 19, 2013

Brucellosis refers to an infectious condition that transfers from animals to humans, most commonly through unpasteurized cheese, milk, and other types of dairy products. In rare cases, the bacteria which is responsible for causing brucellosis can migrate via direct exposure to infected animals or through the air.

The symptoms of brucellosis include pain of the joints, fever, and exhaustion. The disease can be treated with antibiotics. Treatment may continue for many weeks, but recurrence is quite common

It may be noted that brucellosis is rare in the United States. However, the condition affects thousands of animals and humans throughout the world. One can prevent the spread of brucellosis by taking necessary precautions when working in a laboratory or with animals, as well as avoiding unpasteurized milk and milk products.

Symptoms of Brucellosis

The signs and symptoms of brucellosis bear resemblance to those elicited during flu. The symptoms may occur at any point in time after the infection; they may commence within a few days or may take some months. The symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Excessive weakness
  • Pain in the back, muscles, or joints
  • Fatigue
  • Headache

It is important to note that the symptoms of brucellosis may go away for many weeks and months and then reappear. Some individuals may experience persistent cases of brucellosis, wherein the symptoms continue to relapse even after treatment. The chronic symptoms include fevers, fatigue, spondylitis, and arthritis.

Brucellosis can affect just about any area if the body, including the liver, central nervous system, reproductive system, and heart. Prolonged cases of brucellosis may result in complication throughout the body or affect just one organ. Some of the possible complications of brucellosis are listed below:

  • Arthritis
  • Endocarditis, or infection of the inner lining of the heart
  • Infection and inflammation of the testicles
  • Infection of the central nervous system

Causes of Brucellosis

Brucellosis is found in several domestic and wild animals. Goats, cattle, pigs, sheep, camels, dogs, reindeer, and wild boar are particularly susceptible to this disease. A type of brucellosis can also be found in some whales, porpoises, and harbor seals. The bacterial infection can migrate from the animals to humans in 3 major ways:

  • Raw dairy items: The brucella bacteria which occurs in the milk of infected animals can transfer to humans via unpasteurized milk, milk products, cheese, butter, and ice-cream. The bacteria can also spread via intake of undercooked or raw meat of infected animals.
  • Direct exposure: Bacteria which is present in the placenta, blood, or semen of infected animals can pass into the bloodstream via an injury, cut, or other kinds of wounds. It may be noted that the bacteria cannot be transmitted through brushing, touching, playing, or other forms of normal contact with animals. Hence, people rarely get brucellosis infections from their pets. However, it is important for individuals with impaired immune system to avoid any form of contact with dogs which have been infected by the disease.
  • Inhalation: The brucella virus easily spreads through the air. Laboratory technicians, farmers, and slaughterhouse workers can inhale such bacteria and become infected with brucellosis

Normally, brucellosis does not transfer from one individual to another. However in some instances, mothers can pass the infection to the baby during delivery, or during breastfeeding. In rarer cases, the disease may transmit via contaminated blood, sexual activities, or blood marrow transfusions.

Brucellosis is not so common in America. However certain parts of the world have high rates of this disease, especially region around the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, in Latin America, and on the Indian subcontinent. Individuals who reside or travel to these regions are more likely to eat village cheese or unpasteurized goat cheese. It may also be noted that several cases of brucellosisin the United States has been associated with unpasteurized goat cheese which was imported from Mexico.

A few occupations like veterinarians, ranchers, dairy farmers, slaughterhouse workers, microbiologists, and hunters are at greater risk to brucellosis, as they are most likely to get exposed to infected blood.

Treatment for Brucellosis

The main aim of treatment for brucellosis is to manage and alleviate the symptoms, prevent complications, and avoid a recurrence. Patients will have to be under antibiotics for a minimum of six weeks. The symptoms may not disappear for many months. Relapses are common eventually causing the disease to become chronic.

Patients may follow the below listed guidelines to prevent an onset of brucellosis, and also to avoid relapses:

  • Do not consume unpasteurized milk or dairy products
  • Wear gloves at all times when working with animals, especially during animal birth, or when handling dead or sick animals.
  • Thoroughly cook all the meats at home. Only eat well-done or medium cooked meats when dining outside
  • People working in high-risk workplaces should follow all the necessary safety precautions
  • Vaccinate all the domestic animals.


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