Key points about leptospirosis

  • Leptospirosis is caused by the bacteria leptospira that lives in the kidneys and genitals of many types of animals. You can get infected through contact with the urine (pee) of these animals or water that is contaminated by infected urine.
  • Symptoms usually start with flu-like symptoms within 2–14 days of getting exposed to the bacteria, but it could be up to 30 days before you have symptoms.
  • Leptospirosis is treated with antibiotics.
  • Protection involves following handwashing guidelines, and taking care not to touch animal urine, by covering cuts and grazes and wearing protective equipment in a high-risk environment.
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Symptoms can range from minor flu-like symptoms to serious illness needing hospital admission, such as meningitis and kidney or lung failure. It can be fatal.

The initial symptoms of leptospirosis are fever, chills, cough, headache, muscle pain, red eyes, tiredness, tummy pain, sore throat, runny poos (diarrhoea), feeling sick (nausea), being sick (vomiting), rash and yellow discoloration of your eyes. More serious symptoms include bleeding from your eyes, nose, mouth or internal organs such as lungs or kidneys.

The flu‐like symptoms usually start within 5–14 days, but can appear as soon as 2 days or up to 30 days after contact with the leptospires.

Workers in the meat processing industry are most at risk, followed by farmers working with animals. Veterinarians are also at risk of leptospirosis. In New Zealand leptospirosis is the most common infectious disease caught in the workplace.

Leptospirosis spreads from animals to humans. Leptospira bacteria live in the kidneys of animals such as rats, hedgehogs, possums or farm animals and are excreted in their urine (pee). You get infected through contact with the urine of these animals or water that is contaminated by infected urine. The bacteria enters your body through cuts on your skin or through the internal surfaces of your nose, mouth and eyes. You can get it while:

  • hunting
  • gardening in farm soil
  • walking barefoot in paddocks or gardens
  • touching sick animals
  • eating or drinking contaminated food or water
  • smoking without washing your hands after animal contact
  • cleaning out sheds where rats, mice or hedgehogs live
  • working in forests
  • wading in flood waters
  • playing in rivers or lakes.

It is unusual for leptospirosis to be spread from one person to another.

You don’t have to come into direct contact with the urine or infected tissue of an infected animal. Even a splash or fine spray of urine or indirect contact with urine-contaminated water (such as water used to clean down a cowshed) can spread a large number of leptospires.

Leptospirosis is diagnosed through blood tests to either test for the presence of antibodies or to detect the bacteria in your blood.

It is important to see your doctor if you have symptoms or think you may have leptospirosis. Early treatment will stop the illness from becoming severe.

You will need antibiotics as the treatment for leptospirosis. Depending on whether your illness is mild or serious, you may get oral antibiotics or need to be admitted to hospital to get antibiotics through your vein.

You may also need dialysis or breathing support through a ventilator machine if you have serious complications.

You can protect yourself by being careful in risky environments and not touching animal urine, eg, by:

  • covering and cleaning any cuts on your skin
  • wearing personal protective equipment in high-risk workplaces, such as farms, vets, forests or the bush
  • washing hands after animal contact and before you eat, drink or smoke
  • wearing personal protective equipment in high-risk workplaces, such as farms, vets, forests or the bush
  • following animal vaccination programmes (there is no vaccine for humans)
  • avoiding swimming in ponds, lakes or rivers.

The following links provide further information about leptospirosis. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations. 

Prevention and control of leptospirosis – good practice guideline(external link) Worksafe, NZ
Leptospirosis(external link) DermNet, NZ
Leptospirosis (Weil's disease)(external link) NHS, UK


Prevention and control of leptospirosis [PDF, 2.4 MB] Worksafe NZ
Leptospirosis information sheet [PDF, 198 KB] Hawkes Bay Public Health Unit, NZ


  1. Leptospirosis(external link) Ministry of Health, NZ, 2017
  2. Leptospirosis – information for medical providers Worksafe NZ, 2016


leptospirosis information sheet

Leptospirosis information sheet

Hawkes Bay Public Health Unit, NZ

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust. Content adapted with permission from the Hawkes Bay Public Health Unit

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