Rumors — and facts — about tick-borne diseases

MILLBROOK —  Dutchess County has some of the highest rates of Lyme disease in the United States, according to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

With global warming making the environment more favorable for ticks, their population is growing, and so may cases of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, along with rumors about the disease.

One rumor is that a new symptom of Lyme disease causes an aversion to eating red meat.

The truth is that this is not a symptom of Lyme disease and is not carried by the same tick that carries Lyme. It is carried by the lone star tick, so named because of the dot on the backs of the females of the species. It is not an aversion, but an allergy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the allergy to meat is called the alpha-gal allergy. When an alpha-gal sugar molecule enters the human body through the lone star tick’s saliva, it triggers an immune response in the body that can cause an allergic reaction whenever mammalian meat (pork, beef, venison), dairy products and gelatin (which also contain the alpha-gal sugar) are eaten.

Unlike most allergic reactions, which occur very quickly, the Alpha-gal reaction may not occur for a few hours. The Mayo Clinic adds that this is primarily found in the southern U.S. but is spreading northward.

The symptoms are severe stomach pains, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, hives, dizziness, and difficulty breathing as well as swelling of the lips, throat, eyelids and tongue. Anyone with this allergy should carry epinephrine.

Another rumor is that there are now four ticks that carry the bacteria known to cause Lyme disease. There are only two, according to the CDC. They are the black-legged tick, found in the eastern parts of the U.S., and the western black-legged tick, found on the West Coast. Both are also known as deer ticks.

The Cary Institute’s Tick Project states: “The blacklegged ticks that infect people with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease can also transmit the pathogens that cause babesiosis and anaplasmosis. Co-infections are not uncommon.” Co-infections can make diagnoses more complicated.

The CDC further states that deer ticks may also transmit babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Powassan virus disease (POW), Hard Tick Relapsing Fever, and anaplasmosis. Another, rarer disease, Borrelia miyamotoi, came to the U.S. from Japan via infected ticks and is a type of relapsing fever disease.

Tick-borne diseases begin with similar symptoms. These are fever, chills, headache, malaise, muscle pain, joint pain, tiredness, and nausea. Not all symptoms may occur, cauthions the CDC.

Lyme disease may be accompanied by a rash. It may or may not take on the classic Lyme bullseye shape. Other, rarer, symptoms, according to Dr. Vincent Ianelli, of Very Well Health, may be light sensitivity, hearing loss, tremors, tingling, twitching, and mood and sleep disturbances. In later stages there can be neurologic, cardiac and rheumatological problems.

Lyme is treated with doxycycline, amoxicillin or cefuroxime.

Babesiosis is caused by a microscopic parasite transmitted by the tick that infects the red blood cells of the host. Added to the other symptoms are sore throat, cough, respiratory distress, sensitivity to light and darkened urine. Later, there can be a low platelet count which can affect blood clotting and the liver and spleen can become enlarged. Babesiosis is treated with azithromycin.

Ehrlichiosis may have gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and altered mental status. There may be a rash in children. The treatment is doxycycline.

An added symptom of POW is weakness. POW can progress to meningoencephalitis (inflammation of brain tissue and membranes around the brain) with altered mental status, seizures, altered speech and movements and cranial nerve palsy. There is no treatment for POW except supportive care.

Besides the typical tick-borne illness symptoms, some illnesses may have added symptoms. Hard tick relapsing fever may have a fever that goes away and returns a day or so later. Anaplasmosis also has gastrointestinal symptoms and possibly a rash. Borrelia miyamotoi may or may not have a rash. Doxycycline is the treatment is the treatment for all three.

The CDC states that tick-borne diseases should receive treatment as soon as possible. They can be life-threatening.

For more information on tick-borne illnesses, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website at www.cdc.gov/ticks/tickbornediseases/overview.html

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