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Not to be confused with Typhoid fever. For other uses, see Typhus (disambiguation)
Epidemic typhus Burundi.jpg
Rash caused by epidemic typhus
Classification and external resources
ICD-10 A75
ICD-9 080083
DiseasesDB 29240
MedlinePlus 001363
eMedicine med/2332
Patient UK Typhus
MeSH D014438

Typhus is any of several similar diseases caused by Rickettsia bacteria.[1] The name comes from the Greek typhos (τῦφος) meaning smoky or hazy, describing the state of mind of those affected with typhus. The causative organism Rickettsia is an obligate intracellular parasitic bacterium that cannot survive for long outside living cells. It is transmitted to humans via external parasites such as fleas and ticks. While "typhoid" means "typhus-like", typhus and typhoid fever are distinct diseases caused by different genera of bacteria.

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Epidemic typhus[edit]

  • Back pain
  • Delirium
  • High fever (40 °C or 104 °F)
  • Joint pain
  • Low blood pressure
  • Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
  • Rashes
  • Severe headaches
  • Severe muscle pains
    Mass grave of people who have died from typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, April 1945

Murine typhus[edit]

  • Abdominal pain
  • Backache
  • Dull red rash that begins on the middle of the body and spreads
  • Extremely high fever (41 °C or 105–106 °F)
  • Hacking, dry cough
  • Severe Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Vomiting


Multiple diseases include the word "typhus" in their description.[2] Types include:

Condition Bacteria Arthropod Notes
Epidemic typhus Rickettsia prowazekii Lice on humans When the term "typhus" is used without clarification, this is usually the condition meant. Also, historical references to "typhus" are now generally considered to be this condition.
Murine typhus or "endemic typhus" Rickettsia typhi Fleas on rats
Scrub typhus Orientia tsutsugamushi Harvest mites on humans or rodents Unlike the two conditions above, though it has the word "typhus" in the name, it is currently usually not classified in the typhus group, but in the closely related spotted fever group.[3]
Queensland tick typhus[4] or "Australian tick typhus" (and a spotted fever[5]) Rickettsia australis Ticks


The most effective way to prevent typhus is inoculation with the typhus vaccine series before travelling to endemic areas, and to avoid contact with lice.


Without treatment, death may occur in 10 to 60 percent of patients with epidemic typhus, with patients over age 60 having the highest risk of death.[citation needed] Less than two percent of untreated patients with murine typhus may die.[6] Prompt treatment with the antibiotic doxycycline cures most patients.[7]


According to the World Health Organization, typhus continues to kill about 0.2 people per million, per year.[8]


Middle Ages[edit]

Civilian Public Service worker distributes rat poison for typhus control in Gulfport, Mississippi, c. 1945.

The first reliable description of the disease appears during the Spanish siege of Moorish Granada in 1489. These accounts include descriptions of fever and red spots over arms, back, and chest, progressing to delirium, gangrenous sores, and the stink of rotting flesh. During the siege, the Spaniards lost 3,000 men to enemy action, but an additional 17,000 died of typhus.

Typhus was also common in prisons, where it was known as 'Aryotitus fever' and often occurred when prisoners were frequently huddled together in dark, filthy rooms where lice spread easily. Thus, "Imprisonment until the next term of court" was often equivalent to a death sentence. Prisoners brought before the court sometimes infected the court itself.[9] Following the Assize held at Oxford in 1577, later deemed the Black Assize, over 300 died from epidemic typhus, including Sir Robert Bell, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer. During the Lent Assize Court held at Taunton (1730), typhus caused the death of the Lord Chief Baron, as well as the High Sheriff, the sergeant, and hundreds of others. During a time when there were 241 capital offenses, more prisoners died from 'gaol fever' than were put to death by all the public executioners in the British realm. In 1759, an English authority estimated that each year a quarter of the prisoners had died from gaol fever.[9] In London, typhus frequently broke out among the ill-kept prisoners of Newgate Prison and then moved into the general city population. In May 1750, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Samuel Pennant, and a large number of court personnel were fatally infected in the courtroom of the Old Bailey, which adjoined Newgate Prison.[10]

A US soldier is demonstrating DDT hand-spraying equipment. DDT was used to control the spread of typhus-carrying lice.

Epidemics occurred routinely throughout Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries, including during the English Civil War, the Thirty Years' War, and the Napoleonic Wars.[11] Pestilence of several kinds raged among combatants and civilians in Germany and surrounding lands from 1618 to 1648. According to Joseph Patrick Byrne, "By war's end, typhus may have killed more than 10 percent of the total German population, and disease in general accounted for 90 percent of Europe's casualties."[12]

19th century[edit]

During Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812, more French soldiers died of typhus than were killed by the Russians.[13]

A major epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816 and 1819, during the famine caused by a world-wide reduction in temperature known as the Year Without a Summer. An estimated 100,000 Irish perished. Typhus appeared again in the late 1830s, and yet another major typhus epidemic occurred during the Great Irish Famine between 1846 and 1849. The Irish typhus spread to England, where it was sometimes called "Irish fever" and was noted for its virulence. It killed people of all social classes, as lice were endemic and inescapable, but it hit particularly hard in the lower or "unwashed" social strata.

In the United States, a typhus epidemic killed the son of Franklin Pierce (14th President of the United States) in Concord, New Hampshire in 1843, and struck in Philadelphia in 1837. Several epidemics occurred in Baltimore, Memphis and Washington DC between 1865 and 1873. Typhus was also a significant killer during the US Civil War, although typhoid fever was the more prevalent cause of US Civil War "camp fever". Typhoid fever, caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhii (not to be confused with Salmonella enterica, the cause of Salmonella food poisoning), is a completely different disease from typhus.

In Canada alone, the typhus epidemic of 1847 killed more than 20,000 people from 1847 to 1848, mainly Irish immigrants in fever sheds and other forms of quarantine, who had contracted the disease aboard coffin ships.[14]

20th century[edit]

Charles Nicolle received the 1928 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his identification of lice as the transmitter of epidemic typhus.

Delousing stations were established for troops on the Western Front during World War I, but the disease ravaged the armies of the Eastern Front, with over 150,000 dying in Serbia alone. Fatalities were generally between 10 and 40 percent of those infected, and the disease was a major cause of death for those nursing the sick.

In 1922, the typhus epidemic reached its peak in Soviet territory with some 25 to 30 million cases in Russia. Although typhus had ravaged Poland with some 4 million cases reported, efforts to stem the spread of disease in that country had largely succeeded by 1921 through the efforts of public health pioneers such as Hélène Sparrow and Rudolf Weigl.[15] In Russia, during the civil war between the White and Red armies, typhus killed three million people,[16][17] mainly civilians. During World War II, many German POWs after the loss at Stalingrad died of typhus. Typhus epidemics killed those confined to POW camps, ghettos, and Nazi concentration camps who were held in unhygienic conditions. Pictures of typhus victims' mass graves can be seen in footage shot at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.[18][dead link]

Among thousands of prisoners in concentration camps such as Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen who died of typhus[18][dead link] were Anne Frank, at the age of 15, and her sister Margot, at the age of 19. Even larger epidemics in the postwar chaos of Europe were averted only by widespread use of the newly discovered DDT to kill the lice on millions of refugees and displaced persons.

The first typhus vaccine was developed by the Polish zoologist Rudolf Weigl in the period between the two world wars.[19] Better, less-dangerous and less-expensive vaccines were developed during World War II. Since then, some epidemics have occurred in Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Africa.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "Typhus" at Dorland's Medical Dictionary
  2. ^ Eremeeva, Marina E; Gregory A Dasch. "Rickettsial (Spotted & Typhus Fevers) & Related Infections (Anaplasmosis & Ehrlichiosis)". CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 15 May 2014. 
  3. ^ Cotran, Ramzi S.; Kumar, Vinay; Fausto, Nelson; Nelso Fausto; Robbins, Stanley L.; Abbas, Abul K. (2005). Robbins and Cotran pathologic basis of disease. St. Louis, Mo: Elsevier Saunders. p. 396. ISBN 0-7216-0187-1. 
  4. ^ Ticks Factsheet NSW Department of Health
  5. ^ Spotted Fevers Department of Medical Entomology, University of Sydney
  6. ^ [1], BioNews Texas,
  7. ^ Typhus, MedLine, National Institutes of Health
  8. ^ WHO Statistical Information System (WHOSIS)
  9. ^ a b Ralph D. Smith, Comment, Criminal Law—Arrest—The Right to Resist Unlawful Arrest, 7 NAT. RESOURCES J. 119, 122 n.16 (1967) (hereinafter Comment) (citing John Howard, The State of Prisons 6–7 (1929)) (Howard's observations are from 1773 to 1775). Copied from State v. Valentine May 1997 132 Wn.2d 1, 935 P.2d 1294
  10. ^ Gordon, Charles The Old Bailey and Newgate pp.331–2. T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1902
  11. ^ War and Pestilence. Time
  12. ^ Byrne, Joseph Patrick (2008). Encyclopedia of Pestilence, Pandemics, and Plagues: A—M. ABC-CLIO. p. 732. ISBN 0-313-34102-8. 
  13. ^ The Historical Impact of Epidemic Typhus. Joseph M. Conlon.
  14. ^ "M993X.5.1529.1 | The government inspector's office". McCord Museum. Montreal. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  15. ^ Paul Weindling. International Health Organisations and Movements, 1918–1939. Cambridge University Press 1995, p. 99.
  16. ^ Andrew W. Artenstein. Vaccines: A Biography. Springer 2010, p. 250
  17. ^ David G. Rempel. A Mennonite Family in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, 1789–1923. University of Toronto Press 2011, p. 249
  18. ^ a b Nuernberg Military Tribunal, Volume I pp. 508–511
  19. ^ Naomi Baumslag, Murderous medicine: Nazi doctors, human experimentation, and Typhus, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005, page 133