Bug Off! Protect Yourself from These 6 Tick- and Mosquito-Borne Diseases

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by: Lindsay Hutton
Ticks and mosquitoes are two of the leading carriers of diseases to humans, and warm summer weather makes these pests more active. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines the 6 most common diseases that can spread through ticks and mosquitoes, signs and symptoms of each, and the best treatment options if someone in your family gets infected. To avoid getting bitten, follow these tips to avoid ticks, and find out which insect repellents are safest to use on your child. Also, read about how to prevent Zika virus, which is not common in the U.S. but is a serious threat for pregnant women traveling to affected areas.
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Lyme Disease
Lyme disease is transmitted when a person is bitten by an infected blacklegged tick (also called a deer tick) or western blacklegged tick. Deer ticks and western blacklegged ticks can be found in the northeast, mid-Atlantic, north-central, and Pacific Coast of the United States. In most cases, the tick must be attached to its host for at least 36 to 48 hours for the disease to be transmitted.

According to the CDC, most people contract Lyme disease from immature ticks, called nymphs. Nymphs are very small (less than 2 millimeters) and can be very hard to see. Adult ticks also carry the disease, but are bigger and easier to see so they are usually removed before Lyme disease can be transmitted.

The signs and symptoms of Lyme disease can include:

  • A red, expanding rash, called erythema migrans (EM) 3 to 30 days post bite. An EM is also known as a "bullseye rash" and gradually expands over the course of several days. It can reach up to 12 inches across, and usually feels warm to the touch but rarely itchy or painful. An EM can occur anywhere on the body, and occurs in 70 to 80 percent of tick-bite victims.
  • Fatigue, chills, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes 3 to 30 days post bite.
If Lyme disease goes untreated and progresses, other symptoms can include:
  • Additional EM rashes on other parts of the body.
  • Loss of muscle tone on one or both sides of the face (also known as Facial or Bell's Palsy).
  • Severe headache or neck stiffness due to meningitis (inflammation of the spinal cord).
  • Pain and swelling in joints.
  • Sharp shooting pains that interfere with sleep.
  • Heart palpitations and dizziness due to changes in heart rate, also known as Lyme carditis.
Most symptoms of Lyme disease resolve themselves, even without treatment. However, if left untreated, long-term complications can include severe joint swelling and bouts of arthritis. About 5 percent of untreated Lyme disease patients will experience chronic neurological issues, such as shooting pains, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, and problems with short-term memory.

According to the CDC, appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease results in a rapid and complete recovery in 80 to 90 percent of patients. The most common antibiotics used for oral treatment are doxycycline, amoxicillin, or cefuroxime axetil.

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Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI)
STARI is a tick-borne disease specific to the lone star tick. Lone star ticks are found from central Texas and Oklahoma eastward across the southern U.S., along the Atlantic coast, and as far north as Maine. A female lone star tick is distinguishable by a white dot, or a "lone star," on her back.

The main symptom of STARI is a "bullseye" lesion that appears within 7 days of being bitten by an infected tick, which can grow to be 3 inches in diameter. Other symptoms include:

  • Headache.
  • Fatigue.
  • Fever.
  • Muscle pains.
The saliva of a lone star tick can cause irritation and redness at the bite site, but this does not necessarily indicate an infection.

According to the CDC, it is unknown if antibiotics are necessary or beneficial in treating STARI. However, since the symptoms closely resemble early Lyme disease, many patients are treated with oral antibiotics.

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Powassan (POW)
POW is a rare tick-borne disease, with only about 60 cases reported in the United States in the past 10 years. Most cases of this disease have been reported in the Northeast and Great Lakes region of the U.S. Symptoms usually appear between one week and one month after a person is bitten by an infected tick. The symptoms can include:
  • Fever, headache, vomiting, and confusion.
  • Weakness and loss of coordination.
  • Speech difficulties.
  • Seizures.
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and meningitis (inflammation of the spinal cord).
  • Some people who are infected with POW do not exhibit any symptoms. However, about 50 percent of people who are infected experience long-term neurological problems, including recurring headaches, muscle wasting, and memory problems. POW is fatal in about 10 percent of cases.

    According to the CDC, there are no vaccines or medications to prevent or treat POW. People with severe cases usually need to be hospitalized, and treatments can include respiratory support, IV fluids, and medications to reduce any brain swelling.

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Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF)
RMSF is a tick-borne disease that is transmitted when a person is bitten by one of three types of ticks: the American dog tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick, and brown dog tick. According to the CDC, typical symptoms of RMSF include:
  • Fever.
  • Headache.
  • Abdominal and muscle pain.
  • Vomiting.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Conjunctival infection (red eyes).
A rash may also develop, but won't appear until a few days post-bite. Not all patients will develop a rash. RMSF can be severe and even fatal if it isn't treated within the first few days of symptoms. Diagnosis is made by clinical signs and symptoms, medical history, and can be confirmed with a laboratory test.

The first line of treatment for adults and children of all ages diagnosed with RMSF is the antibiotic doxycycline, and works best when administered within five days of symptoms. Most patients who are treated early make a fast and complete recovery, but those who experience a severe case might require prolonged hospitalization, intravenous antibiotics, or intensive care.

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West Nile Virus
According to the CDC, West Nile virus is the most common virus transmitted to humans from mosquitoes. Most of those infected (70 to 80 percent) won't experience any symptoms. One in 5 will experience the following symptoms:
  • Fever.
  • Headache, body aches, or joint pain.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Rash.
Most people with these symptoms recover completely, but fatigue and general weakness can last for weeks or months. Less than 1 percent of people infected with West Nile will develop a serious neurologic illness such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the spinal cord.) In very rare cases, West Nile can be fatal.

There is no vaccine or antiviral treatment for West Nile virus. Most patients use over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce fever and ease some symptoms. In severe cases, some patients need to be hospitalized to receive supportive treatment, such as intravenous fluids or prescription pain medications.

Young family hiking at lake
Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus (EEEV)
EEEV is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. It is rare, with only a few cases reported in the United States each year, and considered one of the most serious mosquito-borne illnesses with a mortality rate of about 33 percent. According to the CDC, most people infected with EEEV have no apparent signs of illness, but severe cases can cause the following symptoms:
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
  • Sudden onset of headache.
  • Sudden onset of fever and chills.
  • Vomiting.
    • As the disease progresses, other symptoms can include:
      • Disorientation.
      • Seizures.
      • Coma.
      There is no specific treatment for EEEV — antibiotics and all known anti-viral drugs have so far been ineffective. Care is based on supportive therapy and managing symptoms, and can include hospitalization, respiratory support, IV fluids, and prevention of other infections. If you think you or a member of your family might have EEEV, consult your doctor for a diagnosis.
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Preventing Tick and Mosquito Bites
According to the CDC, the best way to prevent any of these diseases is to avoid insect bites. Follow these 6 tips to avoid ticks, and find out which insect repellents are safest to use on your child.