Typhus (TI-fus) is the name for a group of infections caused by bacteria called rickettsiae that are spread by parasites such as lice that live on people or on other warm-blooded animals such as rats and mice.

War, Famine, and Typhus


It is likely that typhus existed in ancient times, although the first specific historical description of typhus comes from the 11th century, when an outbreak took place in a monastery in Sicily. Typhus reached epidemic proportions in 1489, during a siege in Granada. Typhus then spread throughout Europe.

Typhus was also present in the Americas, although there is some controversy as to whether Spanish explorers brought the disease in the 16th century or whether the disease already was present in Aztec and other pre-Columbian societies.

In the early 19th century, typhus increased dramatically in Europe. In the 20th century, typhus spread through Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific Islands. During World War II, typhus killed thousands of prisoners in German concentration camps.

What Is Typhus?

Typhus is a group of infections caused by rickettsiae, a group of unusual bacteria. Rickettsiae are like other bacteria in that they can be killed by antibiotics. They are also like viruses, however, in that they must invade living cells in order to grow. There are three main types of typhus: epidemic, murine, and scrub.

Who Gets Typhus?

What Happens When People Have Typhus?


The symptoms of typhus include fever, headache, chills, and general aches that are followed by a rash. The rash spreads to most of the body but usually does not affect the face, palms of the hands, or soles of the feet. In murine typhus, the symptoms are similar but milder. In epidemic and scrub typhus, the fever may rise as high as 104°F to 105°F and stay high for about two weeks. The headache is intense.

In severe cases of typhus, blood pressure may drop dangerously. Severe illness may also lead to confusion, seizures, coma * , or even death. The disease's name comes from the Greek word typhos, meaning smoke, a cloud, or a stupor arising from a fever.

Diagnosis and treatment

Blood tests are used to determine whether people are infected with typhus rickettsiae. People with typhus who are treated with antibiotics generally recover. If treatment is begun early, they usually get better quickly. If treatment is delayed, however, the improvement is usually slower, and the fever lasts longer. If left untreated, typhus can damage organs and lead to coma and even death.


Prevention of typhus is based on avoiding the unsanitary conditions in which it spreads. It is always wise to avoid contact with animals such as rats and mice that may carry disease. Travelers to areas where typhus is common should be especially cautious. To prevent the spread of typhus, body lice must be destroyed by removing them from people with the disease and by boiling or steaming the clothes of infected individuals.

See also Bacterial Infections • Rickettsial Infections • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever • Skin Parasites: Overview


Books and Articles

Allen, Arthur. “How a Jewish Doctor Duped the Nazis: The Astonishing, Untold Story of the Buchenwald Vaccine Scare.” Politico, July 23, 2014. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/07/lice-doctor-lviv-nazi-germany-109255 (accessed November 18, 2015).

Okulicz, Jason F. “Typhus.” Medscape, April 6, 2015. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/231374-overview (accessed November 18, 2015).


MedlinePlus. “Typhus.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001363.htm (accessed November 18, 2015).

NHS Choices. “Typhus.” National Health Service. (accessed November 18, 2015).


National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA 30329-4027. Toll-free: 888-674-6854. Website: http://www.cdc.gov/ncezid (accessed November 18, 2015).

World Health Organization. 525 Twenty-Third St. NW, Washington, DC 20037. Telephone: 202-974-3000.Website: http://www.who.int/en/ (accessed November 18, 2015).

* coma (KO-ma) is an unconscious state, like a very deep sleep. A person in a coma cannot be awakened, and cannot move, see, speak, or hear.

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.