If you see a bat in your house, try to keep cool. If you can trap it—say, in a trash can, without getting bit, go for it. Otherwise, just leave the room and close the door. And then: Call the health department.
“Don’t try to pick them up, don’t try to touch them with your bare hand,” said Connie Austin, the state veterinarian for the Illinois Department of Public Health. “Because they can bite you then, and that’s how rabies is transmitted.”
So far, 39 bats have tested positive for rabies in Illinois this year—one was found in Joliet last week—which Austin says is about average.
“We still have the rest of August and September to get through, and those are kind of peak months for bat exposure,” she said. “So we’ll see what this year ends up as.”
Illinois is not an especially high-risk state for rabies. In 2014, the most recent year for which federal data are available, 25 states had more cases—some, dramatically more.
For instance, where Illinois identified 40 rabid bats that year, Texas had 513.
Also: The Lone Star State had 504 rabid skunks— which pretty much sounds like a worst-case scenario.
Or, maybe not.
“Actually, what’s worse is a raccoon,” Austin said. “People will actually approach a raccoon that looks sick, and try to help it. Most people are not going to approach a skunk.”
The most recent federal data show 1,822 cases of rabies in raccoons—about neck-and-neck with bats and skunks—with Virginia recording the greatest number of cases, at 243.
A little more bat advice, if there’s one in your house
Don’t just let a bat go, unless you’re sure no one in your home has had physical contact with it.
“If you wake up to a bat in the room after you’ve been sleeping, they could have bitten you while you were sleeping,” Austin said. “Or, if you have a small child who wouldn’t be able to tell you what might have happened between them and the bat.”
The health department will tell you whether or not the possibility of human contact means the bat needs to be tested for rabies.
If testing is called for, but the bat is gone, then the humans in question need a series of shots to prevent the disease, which Austin calls “unpleasant,” but which beats the alternative.
The Centers for Disease Control recorded one human case of rabies in 2014—one case, that is, in which the person didn’t receive those shots and developed full-blown rabies.
The patient died.
If you’ve got pets, make sure they’re vaccinated.
“Certainly, pets are very attracted to a bat flopping around, and might try to play with it,” Austin said. “That would be a way that your pet might be exposed as well.”
Dan Weissmann is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @danweissmann.