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Q Fever

Q fever is a disease caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii. This bacterium naturally infects some animals, such as goats, sheep and cattle. About half of people who become infected develop symptoms, which can be mild to severe, and some may develop a chronic form of the disease.

Transmission

Sheep, goats and cattle can carry the bacterium and shed it in their milk, urine, feces and birth products (i.e. placenta, amniotic fluid). Direct contact (e.g. touching, being licked) with an animal is not required to become sick with Q fever. You can become infected with Q fever by:

Certain professions are at increased risk for Q fever infection, including veterinarians, meat processing plant workers, dairy workers, livestock farmers and researchers at facilities housing sheep and goats.

Signs and Symptoms

Illness typically develops 2-3 weeks after being exposed to the bacterium. Signs and symptoms of Q fever may include fever, chills or sweats, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chest pain, stomach pain, weight loss and a non-productive cough. Symptoms can be mild or severe. People who develop severe disease may experience infection of the lungs (pneumonia) or liver (hepatitis).

Less than 5% of people who become infected with Coxiella burnetii develop a more serious infection called chronic Q fever. This can occur months or years after the initial infection and often leads to inflammation of the heart valves (endocarditis). Chronic Q fever is more likely to occur in people with preexisting heart valve disease or blood vessel abnormalities or in people with weakened immune systems.

Diagnosis

See your healthcare provider if you develop symptoms after spending time with or near animals—particularly sheep, goats and cattle—or in areas where these animals may have been. The symptoms of Q fever are similar to many other diseases, often making diagnosis difficult. 

Your healthcare provider might order blood tests to look for Q fever or other diseases. Laboratory testing and reporting of results can take several weeks, so your healthcare provider may start antibiotic treatment before results are available.

Treatment

Antibiotic treatment with doxycycline is often recommended for people who develop Q fever disease.

Prevention

  • Take measures to minimize contact with body fluids or infectious materials from sheep, cattle and goats, especially birth products (e.g. placenta, amniotic fluid).
    • Information on preventing occupational exposure to C. burnetii can be found here.
    • Information on preventing exposure to C. burnetii at public livestock birthing exhibits can be found here.
  • Don’t consume unpasteurized (raw) milk or raw milk products.
  • If you have been diagnosed with Q fever and have a history of heart valve disease, blood vessel abnormalities, a weakened immune system or joint replacement or are pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider about your risk for developing chronic Q fever.

For more information on Q fever, please visit the CDC Q fever webpage.

Statistics

Q fever is a risk for anyone who has contact with sheep, cattle or goats in Indiana, although human illnesses are rarely reported. For more information, please visit our annual report pages or Stats Explorer page.

Information for Providers

For Q fever diagnosis, treatment and testing information, click here.

Page last updated: March 3, 2020

Page last reviewed: March 3, 2020