Understanding Q Fever: Transmission, Symptoms, and Treatments


Cows in a field

If you live or work in an area near livestock, you could be infected with a condition called Q fever.

However, this disease is quite rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only around 200 cases of Q fever are reported in the U.S. each year.

While the risk of contracting Q fever is low, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of this disease, as it can lead to serious heart conditions if left untreated.

In this article, we’ll guide you through the causes, symptoms, and risk factors for Q fever and how you can avoid it.

What is Q Fever?

This is a rare illness humans can develop when they come into contact with a bacterium called C. burnetii.

Q fever is a zoonotic disease, which means it’s caused by a bacteria naturally found in animals.

Typically, the most common animals that can carry C. burnetii are livestock like cattle, sheep, and goats. In rare cases, domesticated pets and other farm animals may also carry the bacteria.

This bacterium doesn’t typically cause disease in animals, but if it spreads to humans, it can cause Q fever.

How is Q fever spread?

The C. burnetii that animals carry can transfer into the soil around them, which is often how it spreads to humans.

Humans can contract Q fever by inhaling dust or mist contaminated with the bacterium.

This means that individuals who live or work near farm animals have a higher chance of coming into contact with C. burnetii.

Humans may also come into contact with this bacteria by eating or drinking unpasteurized dairy products, getting bitten by infected ticks, or through blood transfusions.

However, it’s worth noting that these are very rare occurrences.

Is Q fever contagious?

Q fever isn’t typically transmitted from one person to another as the bacterium isn’t contagious in humans, but there have been cases where women have passed Q fever to their babies during pregnancy or birth.

Symptoms of Q Fever

The symptoms of acute Q fever — which is the initial form of the condition — can start 3 to 30 days after exposure to the bacterium. Symptoms are typically flu-like and may include:

Fever and chills

When the C. burnetii bacterium enters the human body, it infects the macrophages, which is a type of immune cell.

This infection triggers an immune response as the body tries to fight off the bacteria.

During this response, the immune system releases cytokines which can increase body temperature, leading to a fever.

Sweating

Excessive sweating caused by Q fever is typically the result of the fever mentioned above. As your core temperature rises, the body uses sweat as a cooling mechanism.

Fatigue

The main reason people with Q fever may experience fatigue is because the body directs its resources to the immune response triggered by the infection.

By activating the immune cells, producing antibodies, and releasing cytokines, the body’s natural energy reserves may be depleted, causing extreme tiredness.

Symptoms of Q-fever fatigue syndrome (QFS)

Some individuals with Q fever may develop a condition called Q-fever fatigue syndrome (QFS).

Symptoms of this illness can persist for months or even years after exposure. The most common symptoms of QFS include:

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Sweats

  • Muscle aches

  • Joint pain

Headaches

The release of cytokines and the inflammatory response caused by a triggered immune system can cause headaches.

Inflammation around the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord — known as the meninges — can also result in headaches.

Muscle aches

Also known as myalgia, muscle aches can be caused by the release of cytokines.

This substance can increase the body’s sensitivity to pain and can cause inflammation in the muscles. This causes a sensation of aching or soreness.

Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

The gastrointestinal symptoms associated with Q fever are also caused by the release of cytokines into the body.

These inflammatory mediators can disrupt normal gut function, leading to health problems like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Q fever can also affect the gastrointestinal tract and irritate the gut lining, which may cause these symptoms.

Chest pain

The C. burnetii bacterium causes inflammation of the lung tissue, which can lead to pneumonia in people with Q fever.

The inflammation may cause a stabbing pain in the chest, which worsens with deep breathing, coughing, or sneezing.

Often, this is referred to as pleuritic chest pain as it involves the pleura, which are two thin layers of tissue surrounding the lung and the lining of the chest cavity.

Aside from pneumonia, the infection can also cause pleuritis, which is inflammation of the pleura. When these tissues become inflamed, they may rub against each other, producing a sharp pain in the chest that worsens with breathing.

Stomach pain

The nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea discussed above can all lead to abdominal pain. The release of cytokines can also cause inflammation of the stomach lining or the intestines, resulting in discomfort and pain in the stomach area.

Weight loss

The Q fever infection reduces your appetite, which can lead to weight loss.

This is because the release of cytokines into the body can suppress the appetite as part of the infection response.

This natural response helps the body conserve energy, aiding the immune system in fighting off the infection.

Coughing

A Q fever infection often impacts the respiratory system. The pneumonia and pleuritis caused by the infection involve inflammation of the lungs and bronchial tubes, which can stimulate cough receptors in the respiratory tract, resulting in a cough.

Cytokines can also irritate the mucosal lining of the respiratory passages, potentially causing coughing in some individuals.

What You Need to Know About Chronic Q Fever

Less than 5 out of 100 Q fever patients will develop a more serious infection called chronic Q fever.

Chronic Q fever develops in the months or years following the initial infection. This condition can develop into an infection in one or more of the heart valves, called endocarditis.

Individuals with endocarditis may experience symptoms like:

  • Night sweats

  • Fatigue

  • Shortness of breath

  • Weight loss

  • Swelling of the limbs

Risk Factors for Q Fever

Other factors may put you at a higher risk of developing Q fever and experiencing serious side effects.

Women who are infected with Q fever during their pregnancy are at a higher risk of:

  • Miscarriage

  • Stillbirth

  • Preterm birth

  • Low infant birth rate

People with a history of heart valve issues, endocarditis, poor kidney function, or aneurysms are at higher risk for chronic Q fever.

Those with a permanently implanted device that strengthens blood vessels and improves blood flow — which is called a vascular prosthesis — may also have a higher chance of developing a more serious incidence of Q fever.

A weakened immune system, which may be due to illness or chronic conditions, can increase your risk of developing Q fever.

How Is Q Fever Diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will take a blood sample, which will then be sent to a lab for testing to determine if you are infected with C. burnetti.

Treatments for Q Fever

Acute Q fever is typically treated with antibiotics. The most common antibiotic to treat Q fever is doxycycline.

Chronic Q fever is treated with a combination of anti-inflammatory medications and antibiotics.

Your healthcare provider will develop a treatment plan based on your symptoms and the type of Q fever you have.

If you have a history of heart or blood vessel disease, your doctor will likely take steps to reduce your risk of developing chronic Q fever, which impacts the heart valves.

For most people with Q fever, antibiotics will resolve the infection. However, symptoms may last months or years, even with appropriate treatment.

How to Prevent Q Fever

If any of the above risk factors apply to you and you live or work near farm animals, consult your healthcare provider about protecting yourself against Q fever.

Other ways to prevent developing Q fever include:

  • Avoiding unpasteurized dairy products like milk, cheese, or ice cream

  • Wearing a mask and gloves when handling an animal’s bodily fluids, especially their birthing products

  • Ensuring that you observe strict hygiene and sanitation practices where animals are housed

  • Properly disposing of animal products and by-products, especially from pregnant animals

  • In some countries, vaccinations are available for animals to reduce the spread of Q fever in herds

Where Can I Learn More About Q Fever?

Receiving medical treatment for Q fever is important as it may help prevent the condition from developing into chronic infections and heart problems.

While LifeMD can’t treat patients with Q fever, we are here to support you. We may be able to help you manage your symptoms and provide professional advice to ensure a full recovery.

A team of medical professionals may assist you with medications, prescriptions, and advice to cope with painful or uncomfortable symptoms caused by an infected tick bite.

Make your appointment today to take control of your health — all from the comfort of your own home.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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