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Plague

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Forms of Plague

Yersinia pestis bacteria can cause three different forms of plague: bubonic, septicemic, or pneumonic.

Bubonic plague

In bubonic plague, the most common form, bacteria infect the lymph system and become inflamed. (The lymph or lymphatic system is a major component of your body's immune system. The organs within the lymphatic system are the tonsils, adenoids, spleen, and thymus.)

How do you get it?

Usually, you get bubonic plague from the bite of an infected flea or rodent. In rare cases, Y. pestis bacteria, from a piece of contaminated clothing or other material used by a person with plague, enter the body through an opening in the skin.

What are the symptoms?

Bubonic plague affects the lymph nodes (another part of the lymph system). Within 3 to 7 days of exposure to plague bacteria, you will develop flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, chills, weakness, and swollen, tender lymph glands (called buboes - hence the name bubonic).

Is it contagious?

Bubonic plague is rarely spread from person to person.

Septicemic plague

This form of plague occurs when the bacteria multiply in the blood.

How do you get it?

You usually get septicemic plague the same way as bubonic plague - through a flea or rodent bite. You can also get septicemic plague if you had untreated bubonic or pneumonic plague.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include fever, chills, weakness, abdominal pain, shock, and bleeding underneath the skin or other organs. Buboes, however, do not develop.

Is it contagious?

Septicemic plague is rarely spread from person to person.

Pneumonic plague

This is the most serious form of plague and occurs when Y. pestis bacteria infect the lungs and cause pneumonia.

How do you get it?

  • You get primary pneumonic plague when you inhale plague bacteria from an infected person or animal. You usually have to be in direct or close contact with the ill person or animal.
  • You get secondary pneumonic plague if you have untreated bubonic or septicemic plague that spreads to your lungs.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms usually develop within 1 to 3 days after you are exposed to airborne droplets containing plague bacteria. Pneumonia begins quickly, with shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, and sometimes bloody or watery sputum. Other symptoms include fever, headache, and weakness.

Is it contagious?

Pneumonic plague is contagious. If someone has pneumonic plague and coughs, droplets containing Y. pestis bacteria from their lungs are released into the air. An uninfected person can then develop pneumonic plague by breathing in those droplets.

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Last Updated August 19, 2008

Last Reviewed August 19, 2008