Author: Marie Hartley, Staff writer. Updated by Vanessa Ngan, Staff writer, February 2014.
Plague is an acute (rapid onset and short course) contagious illness caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis. These bacteria primarily infect rodents and their fleas; humans are incidentally infected by bites from infected fleas. In recent years, rodent and flea control has reduced the incidence of plague, and prompt treatment with antibiotics has reduced the mortality. However, around 1000 to 3000 cases of human plague occur internationally each year, mainly in developing countries. Most cases occur in impoverished rural environments that are heavily rat-infested.
Most cases of plague are caused by bites from fleas infected with Y. pestis. Once the flea bites, the bacteria migrate to the nearby lymph nodes and multiply. If untreated, the bacteria then enter the bloodstream and can invade distant organs.
Plague is occasionally transmitted via handling infected animals or by inhaling respiratory droplets spread by the cough of a person with pneumonic plague.
The most common form of human plague is bubonic plague. After an incubation period of 2–6 days, there is a sudden onset of high fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, joint aches, lethargy, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea. A papule (small bump), pustule (pus-filled blister), ulcer, or eschar (scab) may develop at the site of the flea bite (10% of cases). Within a few days the regional lymph nodes become swollen and extremely tender. These are called buboes and usually arise in the groin, armpit, or neck. The skin over the buboes becomes red, hot, swollen, and tense. Enlargement of the buboes can lead to rupture and discharge of malodorous pus. The liver and spleen may be enlarged and tender.
If treated at this stage, most symptoms improve in 2 to 5 days. The buboes can remain enlarged and tender for one or more weeks. If untreated, septicaemic plague can develop.
Septicaemic plague can occur when Y pestis infection spreads directly through the bloodstream without evidence of a bubo. More commonly, untreated bubonic plague can lead to invasion of the bloodstream by the bacteria. Gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea may initially predominate. This condition can rapidly progress to disseminated intravascular coagulation, which presents as bleeding into the skin (purpura) and other tissues, and gangrene of the extremities, hence the term, the black death. The patient may also develop profoundly low blood pressure, multi-organ failure, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (severe breathing difficulties). The fatality rate is high.
Pneumonic plague is the most lethal and least common form of plague. It can arise as a consequence of untreated bubonic or septicaemic plague, or it can result directly from inhaling infectious respiratory droplets or other materials. In the case of the latter, the incubation period is usually about 2 days. There is an abrupt onset of fever, chills, muscle aches, joint aches, dizziness, and lethargy. By the second day the patient has a cough with bloody sputum and shortness of breath. Acute respiratory distress syndrome develops, which can lead rapidly to death.
A patient suspected of plague with signs of pneumonia should be placed in strict isolation for 48 to 72 hours after antibiotic therapy is started. The patient be released from isolation once pneumonia is ruled out or sputum cultures show negative findings.
Preventive strategies include:
Antibiotic prophylaxis can be given to people who have:
A plague vaccine for humans is of limited use. It may be useful for field workers in endemic areas and scientists that routinely work with the plague bacterium. The vaccine is ineffective against pneumonic plague.
About 50-60% of patients with untreated bubonic plague die. Untreated septicaemic or pneumonic plague is almost always fatal. Even with appropriate antibiotic treatment, about 10-20% of patients with bubonic plague die, and 50% of patients with pneumonic plague die.
Lupi O, Madkan V, Tyring SK. Tropical dermatology: bacterial tropical diseases. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006 Apr;54(4):559-78; quiz 578-80. Review. PubMed PMID: 16546577. PubMed.
See the DermNet NZ bookstore.
© 2019 DermNet New Zealand Trust.
DermNet NZ does not provide an online consultation service. If you have any concerns with your skin or its treatment, see a dermatologist for advice.