LewisGale Physicians
December 14, 2017

Think zombies are a made-for-TV phenomenon? You may want to think again. While there is no reason to worry about the walking dead traipsing down your street anytime soon, there are real-life illnesses that can simulate the fictional undead. These viral infectious diseases spread quickly and have been known to cause people to act in a quite unusual way.

What diseases have zombie-like symptoms?

There are several diseases worldwide that produce zombie-like symptoms. Among these are:


Rabies is caused by a virus and is one of the most dangerous illnesses known to humans. Symptoms often start within 3-7 days. If left untreated, death usually occurs within a week after symptoms appear. The virus is in the saliva, brain, or nerve tissue of infected animals. Humans most often contract rabies through a bite or scratch from an infected animal. The virus may also be passed on if infected tissue comes into contact with skin in the eyes, nose, or mouth. Rabies is found in infected, warm-blooded animals, including:

  • Dogs
  • Bats
  • Raccoons
  • Skunks
  • Foxes
  • Coyotes

Symptoms in humans may include:

  • Pain, tingling, or itching at the site of the bite wound or other site of viral entry
  • Stiff muscles
  • Increased production of thick saliva
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as headache, fever, fatigue, nausea
  • Painful spasms and contractions of the throat when exposed to water
  • Erratic or bizarre behavior, such as biting, thrashing about, spasms, and delusions
  • Development of intense phobias to water (hydrophobia)
  • Paralysis

If you think you have been exposed to rabies, see a doctor or contact a public health official right away. Death usually occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.

Sleeping Sickness

While sleeping sickness is most often found in sub-Saharan Africa, this is a good one to be aware of if you are a world traveler. African Trypanosomiasis, also known as “sleeping sickness” is caused by microscopic parasites of the species Trypanosoma brucei, also known as the tsetse fly. Initial symptoms of sleeping sickness include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Joint pain
  • Itching
  • Headaches

Later symptoms occur once the parasite invades the brain and central nervous system. This is when zombie-like symptoms set in, which may include:

  • Poor motor coordination
  • Confusion
  • Behavioral changes
  • Sleep disturbances

Without quick treatment, sleeping sickness is considered a fatal disease.


Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is an infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. While largely eradicated in the modern world, records show that it dates back to over 4,000 years ago in Egypt, China, India, and Africa. While leprosy is only transmitted through prolonged, close contact with an infected individual, it still affects about 100 people a year in the United States.

Leprosy causes damage to the nervous system, skin, and joints. Because of nerve damage, people might not feel the skin and develop injuries and ulcers. Other symptoms include:

  • Discolored patches of skin
  • Growths on the skin
  • Thick, stiff or dry skin
  • Painless ulcers on the soles of feet
  • Painless swelling or lumps on the face or earlobes
  • Loss of eyebrows or eyelashes
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis (especially in the hands and feet)
  • Eye problems that may lead to blindness
  • A stuffy nose and/or nosebleeds
  • Paralysis and crippling of hands and feet
  • Shortening of toes and fingers due to reabsorption
  • Nose disfigurement
  • Burning sensation in the skin

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

A variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), also called mad cow disease, seems like a disease made for the movies. Unfortunately, it is quite real. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is a progressive neurological disorder of cattle caused by an agent called a prion. vCJD can develop when humans eat contaminated beef products or receive a blood transfusion from someone who was contaminated. It is most often fatal, causing brain damage and the degeneration of other neurological functions. vCJD is extremely rare, with only about 300 cases reported each year.

After exposure, it may take up to 20 years before symptoms develop. When they do, the disease usually progresses in these 3 phases:

  • Early phase (0-6 months)—psychiatric symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, withdrawal, memory problems, and difficulty pronouncing words
  • Middle phase—neurological symptoms predominate, such as abnormal gait, problems with coordination, muscle jerks and stiffness, and impaired speech
  • Late phase—muteness, immobility

These behavioral changes, difficulty moving, and loss of mental function would concern anyone. Sadly, there is no treatment as of yet.

Necrotizing Fasciitis

Necrotizing fasciitis, which translates to the death of tissue, is a bacterial skin infection that spreads quickly and kills the body’s soft tissue. It is sometimes referred to as a “flesh-eating disease”. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report 650-800 cases of necrotizing fasciitis each year, though this may be low since many cases go undocumented. In a very short amount of time, a necrotizing fasciitis infection can be fatal.

Outwardly, necrotizing fasciitis may present the most concerning of appearances, resulting from decomposing skin. Those who develop such an infection usually have compromised immune systems from another illness, including diabetes, kidney disease, and cancer. Typically, a necrotizing fasciitis infection is not spread from person to person, but occurs randomly when bacteria (most commonly Strep A) enters the body through a cut, scrape, burn, insect bite, or puncture wound. Symptoms usually progress quickly and may be difficult to diagnose right away:

  • Muscle soreness
  • Warm and red/purplish or black-spotted skin
  • Ulcers and blisters that erupt on the skin
  • Fever
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Vomiting

Prompt treatment with antibiotics and, often, surgery is required to remove all dead tissue.

While they may not create the mummy-like creatures we are used to seeing on TV and in the movies, zombie-like illnesses are a very real phenomenon. Being aware of these infectious diseases may just help you to avoid your own personal zombie apocalypse.

Microhealth, LLC: www.microhealthllc.com
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed, please seek medical treatment immediately. Dr. Eva Quiroz is available for consultation and diagnosis. To make an appointment, call the office at (540) 772- 3407.

tags: zombies