A Guide to Common Tick-Borne Diseases

April 29, 2021

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Sarbjit Sandhu.

Ticks can appear any time of year, but spring and summer are the prime seasons for ticks to hatch and spread tick diseases. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), emergency room visits for tick bites peak in early June. And with The National Weather Service predicting higher-than-average temperatures and rainfall this year, this encourages even more ticks to appear.

How common are tick-borne diseases in our region? In the US, the Northeast has the highest rate of emergency room visits for tick bites, accounting for 104 of every 100,000 ER visits. Furthermore, Lyme disease is far more prevalent in the Northeast than in other areas of the country.

This post explains how ticks spread Lyme disease and other tick diseases in humans, and which ones are most problematic. We also discuss what to do if you discover a tick bite or develop symptoms of a tick-borne infection, and how ID Care specialists treat tick-borne diseases.

How Do Ticks Spread Disease?

Ticks live primarily in long grass and wooded areas. Since they cannot fly or jump, ticks use their third and fourth pairs of legs to hold onto leaves and grass while keeping their front two pairs of legs outstretched.

They use their senses of smell, body heat, moisture, and vibrations to identify potential hosts. Once a host makes contact with a tick’s resting place, the tick climbs onto the host and seeks a location with thin skin to attach itself. Once a tick attaches to a host, it inserts its feeding tube and begins to feed on the host’s blood. If the tick has a disease-causing organism, the tick’s saliva can spread the pathogen to the host during the feeding exchange.

Which are the Most Common Diseases Ticks Carry?

Ticks can transmit a variety of pathogens, including bacteria, parasites, and viruses. According to CDC, the most prevalent tick diseases in the United States include:

  • Lyme Disease: Is the most commonly reported tick-borne disease, most frequently reported from the Upper Midwestern and northeastern United States. The incubation period is between three and thirty days. Nymphs, or immature ticks, spread most cases of Lyme disease. Nymphs are difficult to visualize because they are usually less than two millimeters long. Adult ticks are larger and easier to spot, and therefore it is more likely the host will remove them before they have a chance to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, which is between 36 and 48 hours.Important to note, is that not all ticks carry the Lyme disease bacteria. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, depending on the location, anywhere from less than 1% to more than 50% of the ticks are infected with it.
  • Babesiosis: Is caused by parasites that infect red blood cells, and is most frequently reported from the northeastern and Upper Midwestern United States. The incubation period is between one and nine weeks. Healthy individuals may have no signs or symptoms of infection, but for the elderly or individuals with an impaired immune system, babesiosis can be life threatening.
  • Ehrlichiosis: Is most frequently reported from the southeastern and south-central United States, from the East Coast extending westward to Texas. The incubation period is from five to fourteen days. The highest mortality occurs in those younger than ten years old and adults seventy and older.
  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: Is most often transmitted by the American dog tick in the Eastern, Central and Western United States; by the Rocky Mountain wood tick in the Rocky Mountain states; and the brown dog tick in the Southwestern United States. The incubation period is between three and twelve days. RMSF can be rapidly fatal if not treated within the first five days of symptoms.
  • Anaplasmosis: Is most frequently reported from the Upper Midwest and northeastern United States (corresponding with the geographic distribution of Lyme disease. The incubation period is between five and fourteen days. Predictors of a more severe course include advanced age, immunosuppression, comorbid medical conditions, and delay in diagnosis and treatment.

What Are the Most Common Tick Disease Symptoms?

Non-specific, general symptoms of tick-borne diseases include fever, chills, fatigue, aches, and pains.

Several tick-borne diseases present with a rash.

  • Lyme disease occurs in two stages. During the early (localized) stage, a tell-tale red, round rash called erythema migrans may appear, but this does not happen in 20 to 30 percent of cases. As Lyme disease progresses into the late (disseminated) stage, it may impact your body organs, including the joints, heart, brain, eye, spleen, and liver.
  • Lone star tick disease causes southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). It looks nearly identical to a Lyme disease rash but does not usually progress as extensively as Lyme disease.
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever rash occurs in 90 percent of infections and appears about two to five days after a fever. The lesions begin on the extremities and spread to the chest and back. In 35 to 60 percent of patients, the rash will take on a reddish-purple, spotted appearance after six or more days.
  • Ehrlichiosis causes a rash in 30 percent of children and 60 percent of adults.

How Do I Prevent Tick Bites?

Here are a few simple measures you can take to prevent tick bites from happening in the first place.

Avoid, Cover, Repel, Examine

  • Avoid areas where ticks thrive. Ticks live in long grass, wooded areas, and bushes. Try to limit the time you spend in these areas. Stay on paths that allow a few feet of distance from shrubs.
  • Cover as much of your body as possible. Wear long sleeves, long pants, a hat, and crew socks when spending time in an environment that attracts ticks.
  • Use a tick repellent. You can spray your clothes and camping gear with 0.5 percent permethrin before going outdoors. Permethrin is a synthetic insecticide that mimics the natural extracts of the chrysanthemum flower. It causes damage to the nervous system in pests. Permethrin spray will remain on your clothing and continue to protect you for several wash cycles. Some brands of outdoor clothing come pretreated with permethrin for convenience.
  • Check yourself thoroughly for ticks and take a shower as soon as you come indoors. Check areas that are difficult to see, such as the groin, armpits, and scalp. Ticks may come off in the shower before they embed.

Protect your pets from ticks. Pets can carry ticks inside your home and onto you. If your animals spend time outdoors, ask your veterinarian about tick protection medication, and check your pets regularly for tick bites.

What Do I Do If I Find a Tick Bite?

If you discover a tick on your person, remove the tick as quickly as possible with a pair of tweezers. Pull upward using steady, even pressure. Be mindful not to twist or jerk the tick as you pull since this can cause the tick to break apart, leaving portions of the tick stuck under the skin. After you remove the tick, clean the bite and your hands with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.

To dispose of a live tick, place it in rubbing alcohol or a sealed bag, wrap it in tape, or flush it down the toilet. The CDC does not recommend saving ticks for testing in most areas, however, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture requests that state residents keep ticks for animal health officials to identify and call the New Jersey Tick Line at 1-833-NEW-TICK (833-639-8425).

Do not try older remedies such as covering the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly. The sooner you find and remove a tick, the less time it has to attach and infect you.

How ID Care Infectious Disease Experts Diagnose and Treat Tick-Borne Diseases

A correct, timely diagnosis and proper treatment are crucial in tick-borne diseases. Many tick-borne diseases have similar signs and symptoms, and therefore, can be challenging to differentiate. A delay in the accurate diagnosis of your condition or the wrong medication will prolong your illness and make you sicker. Antibiotics can treat bacterial tick-borne diseases, but you must receive the right antibiotic for your infection.

The infectious disease practitioners at ID Care are experts in tick-borne diseases. We can confirm which tick-borne illness you are experiencing with lab tests, most of which we can perform in our offices. If indicated, we will prescribe the most effective medication to treat your infection.

We have 10 offices across New Jersey to serve you. If you suspect that you have a tick-borne disease, please call us at 908-281-0610 or request an appointment online.

Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis, Infectious Disease Blog, Infectious Disease Care, Lyme Disease, Rashes, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tick-Borne Diseases, Tularemia