Ticks are found in all 50 states, and reporting shows that their populations are increasing. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show tick-borne illnesses have more than doubled since 2004. Scientists attribute this to increased awareness of tick bites, improved reporting to health authorities and changes to weather and climate. Some species are expanding their geographic range, and in the process introducing new diseases into those areas.
Unlike mosquitoes, ticks strictly feed on blood and their survival is entirely dependent upon their ability to feed on a host. They feed on mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Unfortunately, some of these ticks carry diseases that they picked up during a feeding from a previous animal host that they can pass on to humans. Tick-borne diseases are scary, but most are treatable with antibiotics. Some of the most commonly diagnosed tick-borne diseases in the U.S. are:
The most common tick-borne disease is Lyme disease, which is caused by Borrelia pathogens. These ticks, often the size of a poppy seed, can leave an undetectable bite. A recently released estimate based on insurance records suggests that each year approximately 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease annually. Some people develop a bulls-eye rash that helps with the diagnosis, others don’t have any symptoms at all for several weeks which can make it very hard to diagnose. Lyme disease known as one of the great imitators for mimicking other diseases. Lyme and tick-borne diseases are frequently misdiagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis, ALS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ADHD, diabetes, Lupus, non-specific auto-immune disorders, and more. Early diagnosis and thorough treatment are critical.
Babesiosis is the second most common tick-borne disease in the U.S. However, unlike Lyme disease, which is a bacterial infection, babesiosis is a parasitic infection. Once a host is infected, the parasites multiply within red blood cells. As they develop, they form a cross inside the cell—a distinctive pattern that helps doctors differentiate babesiosis from malaria. Although babesiosis can cause death, the most common symptoms include weakness, fatigue, fever, jaundice, dark urine and anemia. Up to 50 percent of all infected individuals do not show any symptoms.
Anaplasmosis & Ehrlichiosis
Anaplasmosis is transmitted by the same ticks that carry Lyme disease. However, anaplasmosis is caused by a different bacteria than the one that causes Lyme disease, so people with anaplasmosis have different symptoms. It is most common in the Northeast and the northern states of the Midwest. As the deer tick habitat expands, however, it’s being found in new places. The most common symptoms are fever, headache, nausea, and diarrhea. If left untreated, anaplasmosis can lead to low platelet counts, liver damage, and anemia.
Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne illness closely related to anaplasmosis. Together, these diseases are diagnosed in about 6,000 people annually. Ehrlichiosis can be diagnosed using a blood sample.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is a serious illness you get from a tick bite. It’s caused by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii. Signs and symptoms include an abrupt onset of fever, malaise, headache, muscle aches, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and a rash. The typical rash first appears as spots on the wrists and ankles which then spread to the trunk and also sometimes the palms and soles. The rash often appears two to five days after onset of fever. RMSF can result in organ failure and death. RMSF occurs throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and South America. Most infections occur in the spring and summer.
Also known as the red meat allergy, this syndrome is an allergic reaction to Alpha-Gal, which is a sugar molecule found in mammal meat such as beef, pork, venison, and more. This reaction actually begins with a bite from a tick. In some people, it triggers an immune response when the person later eats the meat of mammal. Mild to severe and even life-threatening symptoms include hives, sneezing, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and anaphylaxis, among many others. Alpha-Gal Syndrome symptoms typically don’t occur for three to six hours after eating red meat or other mammal-related products which can make it hard to diagnose. Symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome may lessen or even disappear over time if you don't get any more bites from ticks that carry Alpha-Gal. Some people with this condition have been able to eat red meat and other mammal products again after one to two years without additional bites. A simple blood test along with a medical history and physical exam can help a healthcare provider diagnose Alpha-Gal Syndrome.
There are several other lesser known and less prevalent tick borne diseases as well. Please visit the CDC website for more detailed information.
If possible, you should always try to save a tick for testing. It can it help you if you develop signs of an infection. Once the tick is removed, grab a sealed container and put it inside. You will want to mark the date on the container as well as the location where you received the bite. The tick can be stored in the freezer for several months.