Mad Cow disease

By Medically reviewed by hellodoktor

msBahasa Malaysia


What is Mad Cow disease?

Mad cow disease is a fatal condition that slowly destroys the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) in cattle. It also is known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)

People cannot get Mad Cow disease. However, in rare cases, they may get a human form of Mad Cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which is fatal.

How common is Mad Cow disease?

The first case of this disease was reported in 1996. Since then, there have been a few cases of this disease reported in the world. Most of the cases have been in countries that are part of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland).

Although it has been serious, Mad Cow disease is rare., there is an estimated one case of this disease diagnosed per million people each year around the world, most often in older adults.

However, it can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of Mad Cow disease?

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is marked by rapid mental deterioration, usually within a few months. Initial signs and symptoms typically include:

  • Personality changes
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Impaired thinking
  • Blurred vision or blindness
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sudden, jerky movements

As the disease progresses, mental symptoms worsen. Most people eventually lapse into a coma. Heart failure, respiratory failure, pneumonia or other infections are generally the cause of death. Death usually occurs within a year.

In people with the rarer vCJD, psychiatric symptoms may be more prominent in the beginning, with dementia.  The loss of the ability to think, reason and remember may develop later in the illness. In addition, this variant affects people at a younger age than classic one does and appears to have a slightly longer duration approximately 12 to 14 months.

When should I see my doctor?

You must seek immediately medical attention if you experience these symptoms. Mad Cow disease is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical care. The condition is life-threatening.

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consulting with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently.


What causes Mad Cow disease?

Experts are actually not sure what causes Mad Cow disease or vCJD.

The leading theory claims that the disease is caused by infectious proteins called prions (say “PREE-ons”). In affected cows, these proteins are found in the brain, spinal cord, and small intestine. There is no evidence that prions are found in muscle meat (such as steak) or in milk.

When a cow is slaughtered, parts of it are used for human food and other parts are used in animal feed. If an infected cow is slaughtered and its nerve tissue is used in cattle feed, other cows can become infected.

People can get vCJD if they eat the brain or spinal cord tissue of infected cattle.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for Mad Cow disease?

The risk of vCJD is not high. The disease cannot be transmitted through coughing or sneezing, touching or sexual contact. The three ways it develops are:

  • Sporadically

Most people with classic vCJD develop the disease for no apparent reason.

  • By inheritance

In the United States, about 5 to 10 percent of people with vCJD have a family history of the disease or test positive for a genetic mutation associated with vCJD.

  • By contamination

A small number of people have developed vCJD after being exposed to infected human tissue during a medical procedure, such as a cornea or skin transplant. Also, standard sterilization methods do not destroy abnormal prions, a few people have developed vCJD after undergoing brain surgery with contaminated instruments.

Most cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease occur for unknown reasons, and no risk factors can be identified. However, a few factors seem to be associated with different kinds of vCJD.

  • Age

Onset of familial vCJD occurs slightly earlier and vCJD has affected people at a much younger age, usually in their late 20s.

  • Genetics

People with familial vCJD have a genetic mutation that causes the disease. The disease is inherited in an autosomal dominant fashion, which means you need to inherit only one copy of the mutated gene, from either parent, to develop the disease. If you have the mutation, the chance of passing it on to your children is 50%.

  • Exposure to contaminated tissue

People who have received human growth hormone derived from human pituitary glands or who have had grafts of tissue that covers the brain may be at risk of iatrogenic vCJD.

The risk of contracting vCJD from eating contaminated beef is difficult to determine. In general, if countries are effectively implementing public health measures, the risk is virtually nonexistent.

Diagnosis &treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is Mad Cow disease diagnosed?

Only a brain biopsy or an examination of brain tissue after death (autopsy) can confirm the presence of this disease. However doctors often can make an accurate diagnosis based on your medical and personal history, a neurological exam, and certain diagnostic tests.

In addition, doctors commonly use these tests to help detect vCJD:

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)

Using electrodes placed on your scalp, this test measures your brain’s electrical activity. People with vCJD show a characteristically abnormal pattern.

  • MRI

This imaging technique uses radio waves and a magnetic field to create cross-sectional images of your head and body. It’s especially useful in diagnosing brain disorders because of its high-resolution images of the brain’s white and gray matter.

  • Spinal fluid tests

Cerebral spinal fluid surrounds and cushions your brain and spinal cord. In a test called a lumbar puncture — popularly known as a spinal tap — doctors use a needle to withdraw a small amount of this fluid for testing. The presence of a particular protein in spinal fluid is often an indication of  vCJD.

How is Mad Cow disease treated?

Unluckily, no effective treatment exists for this condition. A number of drugs have been tested — including steroids, antibiotics and antiviral agents — and have not shown benefits. For that reason, doctors focus on alleviating pain and other symptoms and on making people with these diseases as comfortable as possible.

Lifestyle changes &home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage Mad Cow disease?

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially if you are at high risk, is important. This includes things like:

  • Tight restrictions on importation of cattle from countries
  • Restrictions on animal feed
  • Strict procedures for dealing with sick animals
  • Surveillance and testing methods for tracking cattle health
  • Restrictions on which parts of cattle can be processed for food

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Review Date: December 25, 2016 | Last Modified: September 12, 2019

Want to live your best life?
Get the Hello Doktor Daily newsletter for health tips, wellness updates and more.
You might also like