British Canoe Union Guidance on Leptospirosis - 1996
Canoeist Pathogenic Illness Guide



Leptospirosis is an animal infection. After recovery the animal excretes the organisms in the urine. The bacteria survive for days or even weeks in moist conditions, but only for a few hours in salt water. The infection is caught by direct contact with the urine or polluted environment. Bacteria enter through skin abrasions or via eyes, nose or mouth.

The Illness

The usual incubation is 2 to 12 days. Usually a flu' like illness occurs which resolves in 2-3 weeks. There may be fever, severe headache, pains in the back and calf and prostration. A few cases develop jaundice, when the condition is known as Weil's disease.

Although death may occur in about 15% of the jaundiced patients, death without jaundice is virtually unknown. Antibiotics during the first few days help in limiting infection. Many cases recover without specific treatment.

What to do.

If you think you may have the infection, go to your doctor and tell him/her that there may be a risk of leptospirosis. The diagnosis is by clinical suspicion. Blood tests can rarely confirm the illness in time to affect treatment. They may subsequently confirm it.

The microbiologist at the local hospital is the best source of advice.


  1. Cover all cuts and abrasions with waterproof plasters.
  2. Always wear footwear to avoid cutting the feet.
  3. Avoid capsize drill or rolling practise in suspect waters.
  4. Where possible, shower soon after canoeing.
  5. If in doubt, contact your doctor early.

The level of risk

Each year, an average, 9 water sports people contract Leptospirosis, among which 3 on average, are canoeists.

Leptospirosis is very rare, and its deterioration into Weil's Disease even more rare. Weil's Disease is however a very serious illness, and must be swiftly diagnosed and treated.


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