A tick-borne disease is any disease that is passed to humans through a tick bite. While each tick-borne disease is different, most of them have a few symptoms in common including fever, chills, aches, pain, and a rash. Ticks survive by feeding on blood from both humans and animals. When they consume blood that is infected with bacteria that cause diseases, they can spread it to other animals and humans by then biting them and transmitting the infected blood. Ticks are active year-round but are especially prevalent from April to September. There are 3 ticks that are common in the state of Alabama: the blacklegged tick, the lone star tick, and the dog tick. These dangerous ticks are known to transmit several bacteria-causing diseases. Here are 8 common tick-borne diseases in Alabama:
Anaplasmosis is caused by the bacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilum which is spread by the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Early symptoms of this tick-borne disease include fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Symptoms that appear later in the course of the disease include respiratory failure, organ failure, and death. Initial symptoms usually appear within 1 to 2 weeks after a tick bite. Anaplasmosis is treated with antibiotics.
Babesiosis is caused by microscopic parasites that infect and damage red blood cells in the body. It is spread through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis). Many people infected with babesiosis do not show any symptoms at all. Those who do typically experience flu-like symptoms including fever, chills, sweats, headache, body aches, nausea, loss of appetite, and fatigue. Because babesiosis affects red blood cells, it can cause a condition known as hemolytic anemia which can lead to jaundiced skin and eyes and dark urine. Babesiosis is diagnosed with a blood test and can be treated with antibiotics.
Ehrlichiosis is caused by the bacteria Ehrlichia chaffeensis, Ehrlichia ewingii, or Ehrlichia eauclairensis. This disease is spread through the bite of infected blackleggged ticks and lone star ticks. Common symptoms of ehrlichiosis include fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, and upset stomach. A rash is common in children who develop ehrlichiosis. The rash usually shows up within 5 days of the onset of fever and can be red splotches or pinpoint dots. Other symptoms typically show up 1 to 2 weeks after a tick bite. If left untreated, ehrlichiosis can cause brain damage, respiratory failure, bleeding, and death. It is diagnosed with blood tests and treated with antibiotics.
Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States. It is caused by the bacterium Borrelia mayonii and transmitted through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Common symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic rash known as erythema migrans. This rash occurs in 70 to 80% of Lyme disease cases. It starts at the site of the tick bite and usually shows up within 7 days of the bite (although it can take up to 30 days). It then begins to expand up to 12 inches. It often looks like a bulls-eye but not always. If left untreated, Lyme disease can spread to affect the joints, heart, and nervous system. It is diagnosed by looking at a patient’s symptoms, physical findings (e.g. the rash), and their possibility of exposure to ticks. It can then be followed up by a series of specific lab tests. Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics.
Rickettsiosis is a tick-borne disease caused by the bacterium Rickettsia parkeri. This is closely related to the bacterium that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Rickettsiosis even causes similar symptoms as RMSF including fever, headache, and rash. Rickettsiosis causes an eschar (a piece of dead tissue at the site of a wound, often confused with a scab) at the site of the tick bite while Rocky Mountain spotted fever does not. Rickettsiosis is spread by infected Gulf coast ticks. Symptoms can appear between 2 and 10 days after an infected tick bite. This disease can be diagnosed with lab tests, swabs, and skin biopsies and treated with antibiotics.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is one of the deadliest tick-borne diseases in the Americas. It is caused by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii. It is spread by the American dog tick in the eastern United States. Common symptoms of RMSF include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, muscle pain, and a rash. The rash develops 2 to 4 days after the onset of fever. Its appearance varies from red splotches to pinpoint dots. Almost all cases of RMSF develop a rash but because it appears to much later in the course of the disease it can be difficult to diagnose. If left untreated, RMSF can lead to permanent damage to blood vessels (resulting in amputation of arms, legs, fingers, and toes), hearing loss, paralysis, mental disability and death. RMSF can be diagnosed with blood tests and early treatment with antibiotics is critical.
Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI)
Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, or STARI, is a relatively newly discovered tick-borne disease. Researchers know that it is spread through the bite of infected lone star ticks but the cause of the disease is unknown. STARI causes a rash that is very similar to that of Lyme disease with a red, expanding bullseye lesion that usually appears within 7 days of a tick bite. Other common symptoms of STARI include fatigue, headache, fever, and muscle pain. Because the cause of STARI is unknown, there is limited information available for diagnosis and treatment. It is usually diagnosed by symptoms, geographic location, and the possibility of a tick bite. There are no blood tests yet to diagnose. Because it is unknown what causes the disease, it is unclear if antibiotics are necessary for treatment. Because it is so similar to and often mistaken for Lyme disease, however, antibiotics are often given early in the course of the disease. Research has shown that patients with STARI are more likely to remember a tick bite than those with Lyme disease; that lesions appeared quicker in patients with STARI than those with Lyme disease; and that STARI patients recovered more quickly with antibiotic treatment than those patients with Lyme disease.
Tularemia is a disease that can affect both humans and animals, especially rabbits, hares, and rodents. It is transmitted through several ways, including bites from infected dog ticks, blacklegged ticks, and lone star ticks; skin contact with infected animals; drinking contaminated water; inhaling contaminated dust/powder; or even through means of bioterrorism. It is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis and can enter the body through the skin, eyes, mouth, and lungs. It is highly infectious. When transmitted by ticks, tularemia usually appears in ulceroglandular or glandular form. This causes skin ulcers to form at the site of the tick bite and swelling of regional lymph glands, usually in the armpits or groin. Tularemia is difficult to diagnose and is considered a rare disease. It is often mistaken for other common diseases. It can be diagnosed with blood tests and cultures and treated with antibiotics. While the symptoms can last for a few weeks, most people infected recover completely.
Because there is no vaccine for tick-borne diseases, tick prevention is key to avoiding these diseases. Prevent ticks in and around your home by following these tick prevention tips.
- Learn where ticks live. Ticks like grassy, brushy, and wooded areas. Avoid these areas if possible. Try to walk in the center of trails.
- Use repellent. Treat your clothing and gear with repellent containing permethrin. Use repellent that contains at least 20% DEET on your skin.
- Check your clothing. When you come indoors from being outside, check your clothing for ticks. Remove any ticks you find immediately. Tumble dry your clothes on high heat for at least 10 minutes to kill any lingering ticks. Make sure to also check your kids, pets, and gear.
- Take a shower. Showering within 2 hours of being outdoors helps reduce the risk of Lyme disease and washes off any unattached ticks.
- Check your body. After you come in from outdoors, do a full body check for any ticks you may have missed. Use a mirror to check all of your body parts, especially under your arms, in and around your ears, inside your belly button, the backs of your knees, in and around your hair, between your legs, and around your waist.
- Remove any ticks. If you find any ticks on your exam, remove them immediately. Use tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight out.
- Modify your landscaping. As mentioned before, ticks love grassy, brushy, and wooded areas. Try to create tick-free zones that are regularly cleared of leaf litter and debris. Clear tall grass and brush from these areas, as well. Put wood chips or gravel between your lawn and any wooded areas around your property. Keep play areas and play equipment away from shrubs, bushes, and vegetation.
- Discourage deer and other wildlife. Wildlife and even stray animals or wandering pets can bring ticks into your yard. Remove any plants that attract deer. Use physical barriers and fencing to keep unwanted animals out of your yard. Make sure all cracks and gaps on the exterior of your home are sealed. Consider enclosing your crawlspace to keep unwanted wildlife out.
- Treat your pets. Use regular tick prevention and control products on your pets, whether they are indoors or outdoors.
Tick-borne diseases are serious and have the potential to be deadly. If you suspect you have a tick problem, contact your local pest control company who can provide you with tick pest control services suited to your situation.