Potentially deadly tick-borne illness, easy to prevent, treat

contributing columnistJuly 27, 2014 

When people think of ticks, they usually think of Lyme disease. It is the most common tick-transmitted disease in the U.S., but it occurs mainly in the northeast and upper midwest.

Though Kentucky has a few cases each year, the disease is not considered prevalent here.

However, other tick-borne diseases active in Kentucky include ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and southern tick associated rash illness (STARI).

What are the common symptoms of these tick-borne diseases?

Ehrlichiosis is the most common tick-borne disease in Kentucky. Symptoms develop one to two weeks after a bite and include fever, chills, malaise, muscle aches, headache, nausea/vomiting, and occasionally a rash (more common in children).

Ehrlichiosis can be a serious, life-threatening infection if not treated correctly.

Symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever include fever, headache, nausea/vomiting, abdominal pain and rash, which occur in about 90 percent of patients. This disease is also life-threatening if not treated correctly.

Though uncommon, Lyme disease can still happen here. Symptoms are similar to ehrlichiosis, but the classic symptom is the red and white "Bull's Eye" rash.

Lyme disease may also cause other conditions in the later stages of the disease, like arthritis, heart problems, and Bell's Palsy (paralysis of some facial nerves, causing a drooping appearance).

Relatively new in its discovery, STARI is transmitted by the Lone Star tick, found throughout the southern midwest and southeast. It can cause a rash similar to Lyme Disease but may lack the other symptoms.

How do you treat tick-borne diseases?

First, if you have a known tick bite, be alert for symptoms of the above diseases. Consult a physician immediately if fever, rash, or other symptoms develop.

The antibiotic doxycyline is considered the first line therapy for all of these particular diseases, and is most effective if given within five days of symptom onset.

Generally, patients with a tick-borne disease will recover quickly if they receive treatment shortly after symptoms develop.

Patients with some forms of Lyme disease may also require other IV antibiotics, such as ceftriaxone.

How do you prevent tick-borne diseases?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that these tick-borne illnesses may be prevented by avoiding areas where ticks are concentrated, such as dense woods and bushy areas. When you are outside — especially in a wooded area — use insect repellents that contain DEET, a chemical that repels ticks and other biting insects including mosquitoes, fleas, and chiggers. Additionally, wear long pants, sleeves and socks when in these types of areas, and always perform tick checks after outdoor activity, promptly removing ticks if necessary.

The majority of tick-borne disease cases are reported from May through August, with about 50 percent of cases each year occurring in June and July.

This coincides with the times that we are most active outdoors and when ticks are also at their peak activity. However, cases may occur in cooler seasons as well, especially if those seasons were warmer than normal so it's best to be cautious year round.

Dr. Derek Forster is an infectious disease physician at UK HealthCare.

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