Plague Survival, Symptoms
What is plague?
pneumonic plague different from bubonic plague?
What are the signs and symptoms of pneumonic plague?
How do people become infected with pneumonic plague?
Does plague occur
Can a person exposed to pneumonic plague avoid becoming sick?
How quickly would someone get sick if exposed to plague bacteria
through the air?
Can pneumonic plague
Would enough medication be available in the event of a
bioterrorism attack involving pneumonic plague?
What should someone do if they suspect they or others have been
exposed to plague?
How can the general public reduce the risk of getting pneumonic
plague from another person or giving it to someone else?
How is plague diagnosed?
How long can plague bacteria exist in the environment?
a vaccine available to prevent pneumonic plague?
What is plague?
is a disease caused by Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis),
a bacterium found in rodents and their fleas in many areas
around the world.
Video: The History of Bioterrorism: Plague
Why are we
concerned about pneumonic plague as a bioweapon?
Yersinia pestis used in an aerosol attack could cause
cases of the pneumonic form of plague. One to six days after
becoming infected with the bacteria, people would develop
pneumonic plague. Once people have the disease, the bacteria can
spread to others who have close contact with them. Because of
the delay between being exposed to the bacteria and becoming
sick, people could travel over a large area before becoming
contagious and possibly infecting others. Controlling the
disease would then be more difficult. A bioweapon carrying
Y. pestis is possible because the bacterium occurs in
nature and could be isolated and grown in quantity in a
laboratory. Even so, manufacturing an effective weapon using
Y. pestis would require advanced knowledge and technology.
Is pneumonic plague different from bubonic
Yes. Both are caused by Yersinia pestis, but
they are transmitted differently and their symptoms differ.
Pneumonic plague can be transmitted from person to person;
bubonic plague cannot. Pneumonic plague affects the lungs and is
transmitted when a person breathes in Y. pestis
particles in the air. Bubonic plague is transmitted through the
bite of an infected flea or exposure to infected material
through a break in the skin. Symptoms include swollen, tender
lymph glands called buboes. Buboes are not present in pneumonic
plague. If bubonic plague is not treated, however, the bacteria
can spread through the bloodstream and infect the lungs, causing
a secondary case of pneumonic plague.
What are the signs and symptoms of pneumonic
Patients usually have fever, weakness, and rapidly
developing pneumonia with shortness of breath, chest pain,
cough, and sometimes bloody or watery sputum. Nausea, vomiting,
and abdominal pain may also occur. Without early treatment,
pneumonic plague usually leads to respiratory failure, shock,
and rapid death.
How do people become infected with pneumonic
Pneumonic plague occurs when Yersinia pestis
infects the lungs. Transmission can take place if someone
breathes in Y. pestis particles, which could happen in
an aerosol release during a bioterrorism attack. Pneumonic
plague is also transmitted by breathing in Y. pestis
suspended in respiratory droplets from a person (or animal) with
pneumonic plague. Respiratory droplets are spread most readily
by coughing or sneezing. Becoming infected in this way usually
requires direct and close (within 6 feet) contact with the ill
person or animal. Pneumonic plague may also occur if a person
with bubonic or septicemic plague is untreated and the bacteria
spread to the lungs.
Yes. The World Health Organization reports 1,000 to
3,000 cases of plague worldwide every year. An average of 5 to
15 cases occur each year in the western United States. These
cases are usually scattered and occur in rural to semi-rural
areas. Most cases are of the bubonic form of the disease.
Naturally occurring pneumonic plague is uncommon, although small
outbreaks do occur. Both types of plague are readily controlled
by standard public health response measures.
Can a person exposed to pneumonic plague avoid
Yes. People who have had close contact with an infected
person can greatly reduce the chance of becoming sick if they
begin treatment within 7 days of their exposure. Treatment
consists of taking antibiotics for at least 7 days.
How quickly would someone get sick if exposed to
plague bacteria through the air?
Someone exposed to Yersinia pestis through the
air—either from an intentional aerosol release or from close and
direct exposure to someone with plague pneumonia—would become
ill within 1 to 6 days.
pneumonic plague be treated?
Yes. To prevent a high risk of death, antibiotics
should be given within 24 hours of the first symptoms. Several
types of antibiotics are effective for curing the disease and
for preventing it. Available oral medications are a tetracycline
(such as doxycycline) or a fluoroquinolone (such as
ciprofloxacin). For injection or intravenous use, streptomycin
or gentamicin antibiotics are used. Early in the response to a
bioterrorism attack, these drugs would be tested to determine
which is most effective against the particular weapon that was
Would enough medication be available in the event
of a bioterrorism attack involving pneumonic plague?
National and state public health officials have large
supplies of drugs needed in the event of a bioterrorism attack.
These supplies can be sent anywhere in the United States within
What should someone do if they suspect they or
others have been exposed to plague?
Get immediate medical attention: To prevent illness, a
person who has been exposed to pneumonic plague must receive
antibiotic treatment without delay. If an exposed person becomes
ill, antibiotics must be administered within 24 hours of their
first symptoms to reduce the risk of death. Notify authorities:
Immediately notify local or state health departments so they can
begin to investigate and control the problem right away. If
bioterrorism is suspected, the health departments will notify
the CDC, FBI, and other appropriate authorities.
How can the general public reduce the risk of
getting pneumonic plague from another person or giving it to
If possible, avoid close contact with other people.
People having direct and close contact with someone with
pneumonic plague should wear tightly fitting disposable surgical
masks. If surgical masks are not available, even makeshift face
coverings made of layers of cloth may be helpful in an
emergency. People who have been exposed to a contagious person
can be protected from developing plague by receiving prompt
How is plague
The first step is evaluation by a health worker. If the
health worker suspects pneumonic plague, samples of the
patient’s blood, sputum, or lymph node aspirate are sent to a
laboratory for testing. Once the laboratory receives the sample,
preliminary results can be ready in less than two hours.
Confirmation will take longer, usually 24 to 48 hours.
How long can plague bacteria exist in the
Yersinia pestis is easily destroyed by sunlight and
drying. Even so, when released into air, the bacterium will
survive for up to one hour, depending on conditions.
Is a vaccine available to prevent pneumonic
Currently, no plague vaccine is available in the United
States. Research is in progress, but we are not likely to have
vaccines for several years or more.