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Are Tick-Borne Illnesses More of a Problem?

A single tick can carry many pathogens. As a result, a person who is bitten might develop two or more tick-borne illnesses.
Close up photo of adult female deer tick crawling on piece of straw

Tick-borne illnesses have doubled in recent years and are spreading across the country. Scientists who study these diseases suspect that climate change may be contributing to this epidemic. Many species of ticks have been extending their range into new territory. Because they carry disease-causing pathogens with them, clinicians may not recognize the resulting illnesses at first.

One Bite Can Transmit Multiple Tick-Borne Illnesses:

Lyme disease has spread widely from Old Lyme, Connecticut, where scientists isolated and identified it. However, Lyme disease is not the only problem. A study of ticks on Long Island found that they can carry multiple disease-causing pathogens (mBio, Sept/Oct, 2019). A single tick can transmit more than one disease with its bite. Doctors may find diagnosis more difficult as a result.

More than half of the deer ticks examined carried the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Many also were infected with other species of Borrelia as well as Anaplasma bacteria and Powassan virus. All of these pathogens can cause tick-borne illnesses.

Lone Star Ticks Also Carry Disease, Though Not Lyme:

Lone star ticks (Amblyomma americanum) in the study carried two species of Erlichia. These bacteria can cause severe disease. People bitten by a lone star tick may also develop Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI). This may mimic Lyme disease when it presents with fever and a bulls-eye rash. However, scientists have not identified the pathogen that causes STARI. They named it “Southern” because when they identified the syndrome, lone star ticks were found mostly in southern states. Now, however, lone star ticks have spread far beyond their original southeastern territory.

Alpha Gal from Lone Star Ticks:

The meat-allergy syndrome, alpha-gal, can also be triggered by the bite of Amblyomma americanum. We discussed the difficulty of diagnosing Lyme disease and alpha-gal allergy in Show 1003: From Lyme to Alpha-Gal: The Latest on Tick-Borne Diseases. You might also be interested in our most recent interview with Dr. Scott Commins. It is Show 1167: Will a Tick Bite Make You Allergic to Meat? 

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever:

The Long Island scientists found that dog ticks carried Rickettsia that can cause Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Although the first clinicians to identify Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever were indeed in the Rocky Mountains, these tick-borne illnesses are now more common in the southeastern US.

The Problem with Tick-Borne Illnesses:

When people are infected by more than one pathogen it may be more difficult to diagnose and treat the resulting diseases. Patients recover well from nearly all of these infections if they are treated promptly and appropriately. However, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be lethal if untreated. Powassan virus can cause severe disease with neurological complications. In addition, people whose Lyme disease is not treated early may suffer joint pain, headaches, facial palsy, heart rhythm problems, nerve pain and other complications.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Show 1167: Will a Tick Bite Make You Allergic to Meat?
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Many people have had a tick bite and are now allergic to red meat. The culprit is the lone star tick that triggers an alpha-gal allergy. How does that work?

Show 1167: Will a Tick Bite Make You Allergic to Meat?
  • Sanchez-Vicente S et al, "Polymicrobial nature of tick-borne diseases." mBio, Sept/Oct, 2019. DOI: 10.1128/mBio.02055-19
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What is the best way to avoid tick bites when hiking in North Carolina woods and mountains?

I would like to have seen a range of symptoms, besides the bullseye rash, that should prompt medical attention if there has been any chance of a tick bite.

This brief account does not allow for detail that would expand the potential seriousness of all tickborne diseases and conditions. However, People’s Pharmacy should have included the fact that many can be fatal including Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, anaplasma, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Powassan virus. This can be fatal about 10% of the time. Being a virus, there is no treatment but supportive care. See:
Long-term sequelae are common, and the case-fatality rate in reported cases is approximately 10%.
Powassan Virus Disease Information for Health Professionals …

https://www.health.state.mn.us › diseases › powassan › hcp

I wish just once I’d read an article about tick-borne disease that does not include a statement like this absolute “Patients recover well from nearly all of these infections if they are treated promptly and appropriately.” It’s been my personal experience that there just isn’t enough knowledge or long-term research to make this assertion.

Got a tick bite in late spring. About 3 weeks later had flu like issues. Lyme test came back negative. Soon had episode’s of afib. Don’t know if related or not. Never had heart issues before

You had me until you said patients recover well. I am very disappointed that you are perpetuating the myth that Lyme Disease and its co-infections are easily treated. That is simply not the case. Especially if you don’t live on the East Coast. Lyme Disease and its co-infections are difficult to diagnose. Difficult to treat. And for some people life-changing.

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