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Typhoid fever is a bacterial infection that can spread throughout the body, affecting many organs. Without prompt treatment it can cause serious complications and can be fatal.
It is caused by a bacterium called Salmonella typhi, which is related to the bacteria that cause salmonella food poisoning.
Typhoid fever is highly contagious. An infected person can pass the bacteria out of their body in their stools (faeces) or, less commonly, in their urine.
If someone else eats food or drinks water that has been contaminated with a small amount of infected faeces or urine, they can become infected with the bacteria and develop typhoid fever.
Read more about the causes of typhoid fever.
Who is affected
Due to the way the infection is spread, typhoid fever is most common in parts of the world that have poor levels of sanitation and limited access to clean water.
Children and younger adults are thought to be most at risk of developing typhoid fever. This may be because their immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection and illness) is still developing.
Typhoid fever is uncommon in the UK, with an estimated 500 cases occurring each year. Most of these people are thought to have developed the infection while visiting relatives in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
Signs and symptoms of typhoid fever
Common symptoms of typhoid fever include:
- a high temperature that can reach 39–40°C (103–104°F)
- stomach pain
- constipation or diarrhoea
If the condition is not treated, the symptoms continue to get worse over the following weeks and the risk of developing potentially fatal complications increases.
Possible complications include internal bleeding or a section of the digestive system or bowel splitting open and causing widespread infection.
How typhoid fever is treated
Typhoid fever requires prompt treatment with antibiotics. If diagnosed in its early stages, the condition is likely to be mild and can usually be treated at home with a 7-14-day course of antibiotic tablets.
More serious cases of typhoid fever usually require admission to hospital so antibiotic injections can be given.
With prompt antibiotic treatment, most people will start to feel better within a few days and serious complications are very rare. Deaths from typhoid fever are now virtually unheard of in the UK.
However, if typhoid fever is not treated, it's estimated that up to 1 in 5 people with the condition will die and some of those who survive typhoid fever will have permanent physical or mental disabilities.
Read more about treating typhoid fever.
Typhoid fever vaccination
In the UK, two vaccines are available that can provide some protection against typhoid fever. These involve either having a single injection or taking three capsules over alternate days.
Vaccination is recommended for anyone who is planning to travel to parts of the world where the typhoid is widespread, particularly if you are planning to live or work closely with local people.
However, as neither vaccine offers 100% protection, it is also important to follow some precautions when travelling. For example, you should only drink bottled or boiled water and avoid foods that could potentially be contaminated.
Read more about the typhoid fever vaccination.