Ticks have become a big danger in recent years due to their carrier abilities when it comes to chronic diseases. When they bite a human they can transfer these diseases, which can lead to serious complications and lifelong ailments.
Tick-borne diseases are often disguised as the common flu initially, but if not found early, they can progress and cause cognitive issues, heart problems and chronic pain that often lasts long after the initial infection.
What is a tick?
Ticks are a part of the same classification as spiders, known as Arachnida. They are the ‘vampire’ of the Arachnida family because they need to feed on blood in order to complete their life cycle. Ticks are split up into two groups, the Ixodidae and Argasidae (otherwise known as hard and soft ticks respectively), and there are over 800 different species around the globe.
The hard ticks are named after the hard shell, or plate, on their backs; soft ticks are absent this plate. Ticks generally feed on animals such as deer or small forest rodents, but they’re not picky when it comes to where their blood meal comes from. As long as they have a host to crawl on to, they are generally satisfied. They feed by biting and filling up with blood until they are full, which in some cases can take up to three days.
They are small in size (less than ¼ of an inch generally for adults, with larvae and nymphs even smaller), so they often go undetected when they start to feed. The life cycle of a tick goes from egg to larvae to nymph and then finally full-sized adult; however, all ticks in the cycle apart from the egg stage need to feed on blood to survive. Wooded areas are the tick’s playground, and they tend to populate dense forested areas, although more populous areas such as big cities with green spaces have been known to house them as well.
What disease can you get from a tick bite?
The most common tick-borne illness is Lyme disease. Lyme disease is an infection that gets in the body following a bite from either a deer tick or a black-legged tick, and is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. It often presents with mild symptoms at first, but if left untreated, it progresses to a more serious illness. It can even cause mobility and cognitive issues that can take years to recover from.
Lyme disease, however, isn’t the only tick-borne illness that can be passed on through a tick bite. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be found in the United States, and is often hailed as the most serious tick-borne illness in the States because of its complications such as high fever, vomiting and headache. If left untreated, the progression of symptoms worsens and can cause meningitis, inflammation of the brain, heart and lungs, and even coma.
Other tick-borne illnesses include the Powassan virus, an illness that can cause serious complications including seizures, coma and even death in rare cases; and Tularemia, another serious illness caused by the Francisella tularensis bacteria. Tularemia can lead to skin ulcers, swollen lymph glands and flu-like symptoms.
The list of tick-borne illness is a long one. There are 16 known around the world that can affect humans. They include the Colorado tick fever, which causes flu-like symptoms and a biphasic fever (a fever that goes away and comes back again); anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis, which can lead to respiratory failure and death in rare cases; and babesiosis, which is caused by a parasite that attacks red blood cells.
Most of the tick-borne illnesses mentioned above can be found in the United States, particularly the Midwest or in western Canada. Lyme disease, however, can be found all over the world.
What is rickettsia?
Rickettsia is another group of tick-borne illnesses that can lead to serious complications if left untreated. The rickettsia bacteria is only able to survive within a living cell, and thus has to have a host to exist. When transferred through a tick bite to human, it leads to symptoms such as fever, chills, headache and nausea/vomiting. These symptoms can range from mild to severe, all depending on the immune system of the person infected and how long after the initial infection treatment happens.
The rickettsia bacteria often manifests itself as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, epidemic typhus or rickettsial pox. Because it is so hard to diagnose rickettsia, it is much harder to treat than other tick-borne illnesses.
Treatment for different tick-borne illnesses
When it comes to treating tick-borne illness, it’s not an easy feat. The initial symptoms tend to disguise themselves as the common cold or flu, so much so that if a person was unaware they had been bitten by a tick, they might not even visit the doctor at all.
For most of the illnesses, a course of strong antibiotics will be prescribed, most notably doxycycline or tetracycline. These antibiotics are used because of their strength and effectiveness when treating tick-borne diseases. Often times, even if a tick-borne illness hasn’t been confirmed by laboratory tests but is still suspected, the antibiotic will be given anyway because of the complications of delaying treatment.
The problem with diagnosing tick-borne illness
A lot of tick-borne illnesses, especially Lyme disease, mimic other health issues. The most common misdiagnosis for a tick-borne illness is the flu because initial symptoms often present themselves the same. Most tick-borne illnesses fall into the category of ‘Great Imitators’.
Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder that causes musculoskeletal pain throughout the entire body, is often confused with Lyme disease. It can also imitate other illnesses such as arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, MS, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and even Alzheimer’s. It also has the ability to make the infected person allergic to meat shortly after infection. Because of its ability to mimic other common diseases so well, diagnosis of Lyme disease early on is pertinent in treatment and the avoidance of long-term health issues.