The Tick-Borne Illness You’ve Never Heard Of

Featured Article, Healthy Living
on May 8, 2013
Babesiosis is a new tick borne illness.

Most us are all-too familiar with Lyme disease and its symptoms—especially that telltale bulls-eye rash and the mild-to-severe paralysis it can cause. But now the same pesky, poppy-seed sized deer tick that spreads Lyme disease could carry another infection. Meet summer’s latest scourge: a tongue-twisting infection called babesiosis, which some experts believe may become as common as Lyme disease.

The good news: Babesiosis is still relatively rare, and is easily treated once diagnosed. But it may not be on many doctors’ radars, so it’s important for patients to be aware of the threat, says Dr. Barbara L. Herwaldt, an infectious diseases clinician and medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the babesiosis cases detected to-date have been found in five northeastern U.S. states—Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York—as well as Minnesota and Wisconsin. But unlike Lyme disease, babesiosis can also be transmitted via blood transfusions. Because blood donors travel and donated blood may be shipped around the country, babesiosis could surface anywhere.

It differs from Lyme disease, a bacterial infection, in that it is caused by a parasite that invades blood cells. “Symptoms may range from none, with the person feeling absolutely fine, to life-threatening,” says Herwaldt.  In people who don’t have symptoms, the infection eventually clears up on its own.

But when the flu-like symptoms do surface—fever, chills, muscle or joint pain, headache, nausea or loss of appetite—they can easily be mistaken for other conditions, says Herwaldt. People over age 50, newborns and those with weak immune systems (such as cancer patients) are at increased risk of complications such as respiratory distress, severe anemia or kidney, heart or liver failure.

Because of the difficulty of diagnosis and the fact that babesiosis is not yet top-of-mind for doctors, don’t be shy about bringing it up if you have an unexplained fever and live in or have traveled within two months to an area where the disease has been found, or if you’ve had a blood transfusion in the previous six months, Herwaldt says. People with Lyme disease whose condition worsens should also be tested for babesiosis. A simple blood test can confirm the diagnosis, and treatment typically includes antibiotics, drugs to combat the parasite and fever reducers. Severe cases may require hospitalization.

Right now, there is nothing you can do keep from contracting babesiosis via blood transfusions as there is no licensed test to screen for the parasite in blood donors. However, “the risk of contracting babesiosis from a transfusion is small,” says Herwaldt. “People should not be afraid to receive blood transfusions.”

The vast majority of babesiosis cases could be avoided by the same anti-tick measures that help prevent Lyme disease. They include:

  • Wearing long pants, socks and long sleeves if you venture into the woods during the warm weather.
  • Choosing light-colored clothes so ticks are visible.
  • Applying DEET to clothes and exposed skin, or permethrin, a synthetic insecticide, to clothing only. While these substances are powerful, they offer the best protection against ticks. Follow package instructions carefully, and stick to products with no more than 30 percent DEET, especially for children (don’t use DEET on babies younger than 2 months).
  • Doing daily head-to-toe tick checks, particularly behind the knees, between the toes and under the arms; between the legs; the back of the neck; behind and in the ears; around the scalp and hairline; and in the hair.
  • Checking pets, too, as they could carry ticks into the house that could affect humans.
  • Removing ticks properly: The CDC recommends using fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick close to the skin’s surface and pull upward with steady, even pressure to avoid leaving parts of the tick under the skin. Clean the area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, iodine scrub solution or soap and water.