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California woman got typhus from a neighborhood rat

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A California woman who thought she had COVID-19 turned out to have typhus.

The woman, Margaret Holzmann, of Monrovia, California, said that when she started to experience symptoms of fatigue, fever and headache, she suspected she had COVID-19, according to local news outlet KTLA. But a COVID-19 test came back negative.

However, Holzmann continued to feel sick for weeks. She finally went back to her doctor, who asked if she had recently had any contact with wild animals. Holzmann remembered she had disposed of a dead rat in her backyard, KTLA reported. 

That information eventually led doctors to diagnose her with typhus, a bacterial disease spread by fleas and lice.

Related: 11 (sometimes) deadly diseases that hopped across species

One form of typhus, called epidemic typhus, is caused by the bacteria Rickettsia prowazekii and spread by lice, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disease caused millions of deaths in previous centuries, but it is now rare worldwide; cases are occasionally seen in areas with poor hygiene and extreme overcrowding, the CDC says.

But the most common form of typhus in the U.S. is called murine typhus, which is caused by the bacteria Rickettsia typhi and spread by fleas, according to the CDC. Although relatively rare in the U.S., the disease still pops up in tropical and subtropical climates, including areas of Southern California, Texas and Hawaii, the CDC says. Indeed, in 2018, an outbreak of flea-borne typhus infected dozens in the Los Angeles area, Live Science previously reported.

Holzmann's doctors said she likely contracted typhus from infected fleas carried by the rat. When Holzmann posted her story to the social media site Nextdoor, she discovered that another person in her neighborhood had also recently been diagnosed with typhus after disposing of a dead rat, KTLA reported.

Symptoms of murine typhus typically start within two weeks of infection, and include fever, chills, body aches, nausea, vomiting and rash. The disease is treatable with the antibiotic doxycycline, according to the CDC. Most people completely recover, sometimes even without treatment, the CDC says.

People can reduce their risk of murine typhus by avoiding exposure to fleas, for instance by using flea medication for pets and keeping rodents away from their home, according to the CDC.

After her experience, Holzmann advises people not to take a do-it-yourself approach to disposing of dead animals. "If you see something in your yard, call someone who can dispose of it safely and don't try to do it yourself," she told KTLA.

Originally published on Live Science.  

Rachael Rettner

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.