Beyond Lyme: The Tick Threats You Probably Don’t Know About

Ticks are not just annoying little bloodsuckers, they can be dangerous vectors (organisms that transfer disease). It seems like each year we hear more and more about the prevalence of ticks and tick-related threats. If you don’t remember being scared of tick-borne diseases when you were a kid, or even a decade ago, that’s because you weren’t. The reported prevalence of tick-borne diseases has tripled since 1995.

It’s important to take ticks seriously and consider doing more to keep your family safe from them, and keeping yourself informed about tick related threats. Let’s start with some facts. Ticks in the U.S. can spread more than 15 different diseases. Many consider them the most significant vectors of infectious diseases in the United States.

You’ve probably heard about Lyme disease. It’s a treatable bacterial infection that is estimated to sicken about 300,000 Americans a year, but there are several other lesser known diseases that you probably don’t know about. Here are four that can be found in our region:

Babesiosis (pronounced bah-bee-zee-oh-sis) is caused by microscopic parasites spread by certain ticks. Most often, blacklegged ticks and deer ticks. The parasites infect red blood cells and are spread by certain ticks. Transmission rates in our region are highest during the warm weather months. Symptoms can range from non-existent to life threatening. Many people who are infected feel fine, but some people develop nonspecific flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, sweats, headache, body aches, loss of appetite, nausea, or fatigue. Because Babesia parasites infect and destroy red blood cells, and can cause a special type of anemia called hemolytic anemia. This type of anemia can lead to jaundice (yellowing of the skin) and dark urine. Infection can be a life-threatening disease in people with already weakened immune systems or have other serious health conditions that affect their spleen, liver or kidney.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a bacterial infection spread by dog and wood ticks. It can be fatal if antibiotic treatment isn’t started within several days of symptoms. Most people who get sick with RMSF will have a fever, headache, and rash. However, the disease can rapidly progress to a serious and life-threatening illness. A rash is a common sign in people who are sick with RMSF.  Rash usually develops 2-4 days after the fever begins. The look of the rash can vary widely over the course of illness. Some rashes can look like red splotches and some look like pinpoint dots. While almost all patients with RMSF will develop a rash, it often does not appear early in the illness, which can make RMSF difficult to diagnose.

Powassan (pronounced pow-ah-sahn) disease is transmitted by the black-legged tick and the groundhog tick. The incubation period (time from tick bite to onset of illness) ranges from about one week to one month. Many people who become infected with POW virus do not develop any symptoms. Those who do experience symptoms may have a fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures, and memory loss. There is no specific treatment, but people with severe POW virus illnesses often need to be hospitalized to receive respiratory support, intravenous fluids, or medications to reduce swelling in the brain. The most severe and debilitating symptom that can occur is long-term neurologic problems.

Tularemia (pronounced too-luh-ree-mee-uh) is a disease caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. Rabbits, hares, and rodents are especially susceptible and often die in large numbers during outbreaks. Humans can become infected through dog tick, wood tick, lone star tick and deer fly bites, but also through skin contact with infected animals, and ingestion of contaminated water. Symptoms vary depending on the route of infection. Although, all forms are accompanied by fever, which can be as high as 104 °F. Although tularemia can be life-threatening, most infections can be treated successfully with antibiotics. Infections due to tick and deer fly bites usually take the form of skin ulcers and enlarged lymph nodes.

The most important thing you can do to protect your family from vector borne diseases like these is to protect your family from ticks. We offer some suggestions and tips to do just that here. If you do find a tick on you or someone you love. Remove it as soon as possible, the longer a tick remains the greater the likelihood of disease transmission.