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Babesiosis: Another Reason to Avoid Tick Bites

You’ve heard the warnings time and time again: Avoid ticks because they carry bacteria that cause Lyme disease. In case you needed another reason to avoid these blood-thirsty little insects, these same ticks can cause another disease called babesiosis. While not as common as Lyme, certain areas of the United States – including the Northeast – are seeing spikes in cases of babesiosis in clinics and hospital emergency rooms.

“Babesiosis is a malaria-like parasitic disease transmitted by the deer tick,” said Todd Braun, MD, chief, Infectious Diseases Division, Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health. “Some people become infected and have very few symptoms, while others become seriously ill.”

Ticks Bite Mice, Then Bite You

Unfortunately, the process of becoming infected with babesiosis is not a pretty one. First, a tick bites a mouse that is infected with babesia, a microorganism in the same family as other parasites that cause diseases such as malaria. The tick then bites you and transfers the parasite to your blood through its saliva. It can happen when you encounter a tick walking in your backyard or while you’re petting your dog on the couch.

“Once the parasite is in your body, it sets up shop in your red blood cells and multiplies,” said Braun. “The red blood cells are destroyed and removed from the blood.”

Ticks can potentially carry different bacteria, viruses, and protozoa that can be harmful to humans. In some cases, they transmit more than one infectious organism with a single bite, which means you may be infected with diseases such as Lyme and babesiosis at the same time.

The Range of Symptoms

Both adults and children with babesiosis may not experience any symptoms at all. The body is able to eventually fight off the infection without medical assistance.

However, some people will experience symptoms related to hemolytic anemia – the death of red blood cells that occurs when the parasite multiplies. In these cases, the symptoms are similar to malaria. It may cause fever, chills, confusion, weakness, pale skin, and fatigue so severe it limits your activities.

“The most severe cases are seen in people who are very young or very old,” said Braun. “It’s also very dangerous for people who have had their spleen removed or are immunocompromised because they have conditions such as HIV or AIDS.”

In severe cases, babesiosis can cause jaundice – yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes – as well as shortness of breath and organ failure. In people without a spleen, the disease can be fatal.

Avoiding Babesiosis

The same advice for avoiding Lyme disease applies to babesiosis:

  • Use tick repellents: If you’re planning to visit areas where ticks are common, use an insect repellant with 20 – 30 percent DEET.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants: When you’re in a heavily infected area, cover as much of your skin as possible and tuck your pants into your socks for added protection.
  • Wear light clothing: Light-colored clothing makes it easier to spot ticks before they reach your skin.
  • Remove ticks promptly: If you do discover a tick on your body, remove it as soon as possible. Use tweezers and grab as close to the head of the tick and pull.

“If you think you’ve been bitten by a tick or have symptoms that may suggest an infection, talk to your doctor,” said Braun. “The sooner you’re treated, the better your outcome will be.”

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