Trench fever

Trench fever

Description, Causes and Risk Factors:

An uncommon rickettsial fever caused by Bartonella quintana and transmitted by the louse Pediculus humanus, first appearing as an epidemic during the trench warfare of World War I; characterized by the sudden onset of chills and fever, myalgia (especially of the back and legs), headache, and general malaise that typically lasts 5 days but may recur.

Trench fever takes its name from its first appearance in the trenches of the Western front of World War I. It was described in the medical literature for the first time in September 1915 as a "relapsing febrile illness of unknown origin" in an article by Major J. Graham in the Lancet in September 1915. It was dubbed trench fever in the Lancet less than two months later. In the course of the war it was to claim 800,000 victims. Neither side was prepared for the large scale trench warfare that the Western front devolved into and public health problems appeared almost immediately.

The problems were less severe for the Germans who largely controlled the better-drained high ground (and drained their latrines towards the Allies) and who built more permanent and better designed fortifications. For the Allies the trenches were seen as a temporary solution and although built to support a reasonable tactical doctrine they were public health disasters. They were often in the valleys below the German positions and any rain drained into them reducing the bottoms to mud. Duck boarding meant to keep the feet dry was often missing, damaged or lost in the mud. Sleeping was often in crowded unventilated pits dug into the sides of the trenches. Toilet and washing facilities were minimal or absent (under the best conditions, soldiers had a bath every 10 days). Latrines were built behind the trenches but were not used when the trenches were under fire (which was often). Corpses littering the no-man's land or incorporated into trench walls added to the problem. Even though men were rotated out of the trenches on fairly regular schedules, lice proliferated. They spread rapidly because men were not allowed to build fires for heat and in cold weather they crowded together for heat. Although men deloused themselves, the measures did not sterilize the excreta bearing the pathogen.

Lice had long been known to be a problem for soldiers in the field and for the poor. In fact, the presence of lice on children was seen as a sign of health amongst the poor of London in the 19th Century so effective measures against lice were up against social barriers. Medical officers did come up with a variety of more and less effective measures that did help control the louse problem.

The disease is caused by the bacterium Bartonella quintana (older names: Rochalimea quintana, Rickettsia quintana), found in the stomach walls of the body louse. Bartonella quintana is closely related to Bartonella henselae, the agent of cat scratch fever. Bartonella quintana is transmitted by contamination of a skin abrasion or louse-bite wound with the faeces of an infected body louse (Pediculus humanus corporis). There have also been reports of an infected louse bite passing on the infection.

As trench fever claimed 800,000 casualties, with few fatalities, in France and Belgium an outbreak of typhus on the Eastern front was claiming 6,000 victims a day and may have killed a quarter of the Serbian army. At the time and for some years afterward it was believed that there may have been some form of mutual exclusion of the two diseases.

Once the war was over and the trenches were evacuated, the disease dissappeared. It made a brief reappearance during the Second World War, but thanks to improvements in personal hygiene, better medical care, and less trench warfare, it was far less prevalent.

This appears to have been the last that was to be seen of the disease until the 1990's when cases began to be seen amongst the homeless in the United States and in AIDS victims. Where had it been all this time? How had it been surviving? As a relatively non-lethal agent that only occurs under unusual conditions the agent is not that well studied and it may have surprises for us yet.


Trench fever can be either slow or rapid in onset. In the rapid onset form, there is an incubation period of 8-30 days, after which there is a sudden development of symptoms, including severe headache, myalgia and pain in the lower body from the lumbar region to the shins. Shin pain is characteristic of the disease and splenomegaly is common.

Depression and neurological sequelae are common and endocarditis may be found. The disease can recur for years, so patients may need to be monitored. As long as they are symptomatic, they can infect the louse and it will remain infective as long as it lives.

The fever associated with the disease lasts a few days followed by remission and relapse after 5-6 days. There may be several rounds of remission and relapse. In some cases, the fever is typhoid-like


The differential diagnosis list includes typhus, ehrlichiosis, leptospirosis, Lyme disease and virus-caused exanthema (measles or rubella).

Serological testing is typically used to obtain a definitive diagnosis. Most serological tests would succeed only after a certain period of time past the symptom onset (usually a week). The following diagnostic tests may be useful in diagnosis:

    Indirect hemagglutination.

  • Complement fixation.

  • Weil-Felix test (B. quintana is negative).

  • Culture of the organism on chocolate agar under 5% CO2 will produce colonies after 1-3 weeks.

  • ELISA (Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) is commercially available and an immunofluorescence assay is available from the CDC.


No well-designed, double-blinded, controlled trials have documented the best antibiotic regimen for B quintana infection and its associated syndromes (including trench fever) in immunocompetent patients. Most therapeutic recommendations are based on anecdotal clinical experience.

Treatment options may include:

    Vaccination (Immunoprophylaxis): A vaccine is not available.

  • Antibiotics: The disease responds well to antibiotics. Doxycycline (100 mg every 12 hours) for 5-7 days is the treatment of choice. Erythromycin (250 mg every six hours) is also effective.

  • Supportive care: Analgesics and antipyretics may be used to ease pain and inflammation. Depression was found in 80% of victims in World War I and psychological counseling may be necessary. Endocarditis has been seen in severe cases in the deprived (homeless alcoholics).

NOTE: The above information is for processing purpose. The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

9 Women-Friendly Gym Machines for Powerful Workout

9 Women-Friendly Gym Machines for Powerful Workout

Here is the list of nine user-friendly gym machines for women that are intimidated by barbells, bumper plates, and squat racks by Robin Cortez, director of team training for Chuze Fitness, which has clubs in California, Colorado and Arizona: Smith machine — used for...

[WpProQuiz 1]

Featured Products

Kangoo Jumps Training: 5 Beginner Exercises

In childhood, many of us dreamed of learning to jump high. Now, after years, it became easier - Kangoo Jumps has appeared. This is one of the relatively new, but quickly gaining popularity types of fitness training. There are several advantages of jumpers. ...

read more
All original content on these pages is fingerprinted and certified by Digiprove