Woman Who Thought She Had COVID Had Actually Caught Typhus From a Dead Rat

A California woman who thought she had contracted COVID-19 had in fact caught the disease typhus after handling a dead rat infested with fleas.

Margaret Holzmann, who lives in Monrovia, Los Angeles County, told local TV station KTLA she had removed a dead rat from her back yard and later began to feel so exhausted that she could not do anything. She also developed a fever and a headache.

A fever, headache and fatigue are among the most common symptoms of COVID, so Holzmann got tested for the virus. Her test came back negative.

She continued to feel unwell and a few weeks later, returned to her doctor who asked if she had been in contact with any wild animals.

"I thought, 'No, not really' and then I thought, 'Oh, wait.' There was that rat." she said. The rat was carrying fleas infected with typhus, which passed the disease to Holzmann.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, typhus fevers are a group of diseases triggered by bacteria carried by fleas, lice and a type of mites called chiggers.

Epidemic typhus is a form of the disease spread by body lice that killed millions of people in previous centuries. It is now rare and tends to be found only in areas with extreme overcrowding. Scrub or bush typhus, is caused by chiggers, mostly in southeast Asia, Indonesia, China, Japan, India and northern Australia.

Flea-borne or murine typhus—the type that Holzmann got—is passed on by the insects that live on animals such as rats, opossums, and cats. This happens when a flea bites an infected animal, then bites a person and breaks their skin. As the flea feeds, it defecates and the flea dirt can enter the wound, or be breathed in or rubbed into the eyes. Tropical and subtropical areas, such as southern California, Hawaii and Texas in the U.S., have such fleas but the disease is rare.

According to the CDC, the symptoms of murine typhus include a fever, as well as chills, aches and muscle pain, appetite loss, nausea, vomiting, coughing and stomach pain. Sufferers also develop a rash around five days after they fall ill.

Flea-borne typhus is treated with the antibiotic doxycycline and people who take it usually recover quickly, the CDC said.

Holzmann learned that she was not alone in catching typhus after she posted about her experience on the social network Nextdoor.

She said: "Two blocks over, [a neighbor] says her grandfather got it around the same time I did and also, same thing: disposing of a dead rat on their property."

Holzmann added that people should call animal control services if they needed something removed from their yard.

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Stock image of a rat in a yard. Getty Images