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Fact Sheet on Q Fever

Division of Epidemiology
275 E. Main St., Frankfort, KY  40621
(502) 564-3418 or 3261  
What is Q fever?
Q fever is a bacterial zoonosis (disease capable of being transmitted from animals to people) caused by Coxiella burnetii, a rickettsial organism.  It was discovered in 1937, in Australia.  Coxiella burnetii is resistant to heat, desiccation, and many common disinfectants and is highly infectious by the aerosol route.  A single inhaled organism may produce clinical illness.  For these reasons, Q fever could be used by an adversary as an incapacitating biological warfare agent.

What are the symptoms in people?

Q fever in humans is usually either asymptomatic or mistaken for an acute viral illness. Q fever is a disease with an acute onset of fever, chills, headache, weakness, malaise (a general sick feeling), abnormal liver function tests, and severe sweats. In most cases, the illness is of short duration, lasting less than two weeks, even without treatment. A majority of patients have abnormal results on liver function tests and some will develop hepatitis.  Rare complications include pneumonitis (inflammation of the lungs), neurologic problems, and among people with abnormal or prosthetic heart valves, endocarditis (inflammation of the heart).  Complications are more likely to occur among people who have weakened immune systems.

Who gets Q fever?

Q fever is a relatively rare disease in people, but anyone can get Q fever if they are infected with C. burnetii bacteria. People at highest risk for Q fever are those who work with infected animals, including veterinarians, lab workers, meat workers, sheep workers, and farmers. The infection occurs worldwide.

What animals carry the Q fever organism?

Sheep, cattle, goats, cats, dogs, some wild animals (including many wild rodents), birds, and ticks are natural reservoir hosts for C. burnetii. Infected animals are generally asymptomatic but they do shed the organism in their urine, feces, milk, and especially in their birth products.

How is Q fever spread?

Q fever is spread to people primarily through airborne dissemination of contaminated dust. Dust becomes contaminated from the tissue or body fluids of animals infected with C. burnetii bacteria. Direct contact with infected animals or materials that they have contaminated (such as straw or other bedding materials) may also cause an infection. Raw or unpasteurized milk from infected cows or goats may be capable of spreading C. burnetii. Direct person-to-person spread is not likely.

How soon after an exposure do symptoms appear?

This is variable, but 2-3 weeks after exposure is the most common.

How is Q fever diagnosed?

Blood tests can be used to diagnose Q fever.

What is the treatment for Q fever?

As stated, most people infected will recover without any treatment. Those who become more seriously ill may receive antibiotics at the discretion of their physician.

How can Q fever be prevented?

Prevention is based on the control of this disease in domestic animals. People who work with animals who may be infected need to know the signs and symptoms of Q fever and seek treatment if they feel they could be infected.

For more information on Q Fever visit the Centers for Disease Control at


Last Updated 5/17/2006