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Cat scratch fever is a common term for cat scratch disease (CSD). It is a bacterial infection caused by exposure to the saliva of infected cats. The most common signs of cat scratch fever are swelling of the lymph glands closest to the exposure site, a slightly elevated temperature, fatigue, and headaches. Papules, or blisters, may appear at the exposure site, and sufferers may experience nausea and vomiting.
Symptoms develop within three to 12 days after exposure to the bacteria. The lymph nodes in the head, neck, and upper limbs are most often affected, and they can remain swollen and tender for up to six weeks. In rare cases, they may develop chronic inflammation and drain pus. The nausea and vomiting associated with the infection can decrease appetite and lead to weight loss.
The bacterium responsible for cat scratch fever, Bartonella henselae, is found in the saliva of infected cats. It is a common infection, with as many as 40% of cats carrying the infection at some point in their lives. Kittens carry it more often than grown cats. Infected cats are asymptomatic and do not show any signs of the infection.
Although CSD is commonly referred to as cat scratch fever, a scratch from a cat is only one way the bacteria is spread. A person can become infected from a cat bite or even from stroking a cat’s fur. Cats clean themselves by licking their fur, thereby exposing their fur to their saliva. An animal carrying the infection can spread the disease by licking a person if the person has a cut or a sore on his or her skin.
Either a blood test or a positive response to a skin-test antigen can indicate cat scratch fever. The infection is treated with antibiotics, which may reducing the severity of the symptoms. Most people recover fully from the illness, even without treatment. If left untreated, cat scratch fever can last as long as 12 weeks.
In order to prevent CSD, people who are around cats should wash their hands with soap and water after touching or playing with the animals. Cat scratches and bites should be immediately cleaned with soap and water. People can limit the spread of the disease by avoiding playing roughly with cats, an activity that encourages cats to use their claws and teeth in mock battles. Any person who shows signs of cat scratch fever should see a medical professional.