Is This Tick-Borne Illness the New Lyme Disease?

A new tick-borne disease has been found in the eastern and western parts of the United States. Here’s how it compares with Lyme disease.

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A new tick-borne disease may make those already wary of Lyme disease even more anxious to venture outdoors.

However, doctors say people shouldn’t panic. There’s a treatment for this new disease if you get bitten and develop symptoms. There are also simple steps you can take to prevent tick bites.

What is Borrelia miyamotoi?

The new disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia miyamotoi, which is in the same group of bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

In fact, these bacteria share many things in common.

“These two pathogens overlap very much — same ticks carrying it, same kinds of prevention, and the treatment is nearly identical,” said Dr. Ashley Larrimore, an emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Right now, B. miyamotoi is found in 1 to 5 percent of ticks that carry it, compared with 15 to 30 percent for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

But this could change in the near future.

B. miyamotoi is carried by the same ticks that carry Lyme disease, and we’re seeing increases in Lyme, so we’re probably going to see increases in this new pathogen,” said Larrimore.

In the United States, the ticks that carry these bacteria are the black-legged (deer) tick and the western black-legged tick. They’re found in both the eastern and western parts of the country.

So far, though, there’ve been fewer than 60 well-documented cases of people in the country being infected by B. miyamotoi, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Symptoms of Borrelia miyamotoi

B. miyamotoi infection causes flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, sweats, headache, joint pain, and fatigue. It can also cause a relapsing fever, in which symptoms improve and then return.

Symptoms appear between 12 and 16 days after a tick bite.

These symptoms are similar to Lyme disease, with one exception.

“The big difference is that people with Lyme disease almost always get a rash. You may not see that with B. miyamotoi,” said Larrimore.

Larrimore added that B. miyamotoi can also cause other less common symptoms, including “confusion, headaches, abdominal pain, or problems with walking.”

These can occur in healthy people but are more likely in people with a compromised immune system due to causes such as HIV, chemotherapy, or immunosuppressant medications.

How Borrelia miyamotoi is treated

Blood tests for Lyme disease can’t be used to diagnose B. miyamotoi infection.

However, two blood tests specific for B. miyamotoi are under development — one looks for DNA from the bacteria and another for antibodies formed by your body against the bacteria. But few clinical laboratories currently offer these tests.

Doctors may treat a person if they develop symptoms of B. miyamotoi infection after a recent tick bite or after spending time in an area where black-legged ticks are common.

Treatment is currently the same as for Lyme disease — two to four weeks of an antibiotic such as doxycycline.

Avoiding tick bites

Adult black-legged ticks are about the size of a sesame seed — younger ones about the size of a poppy seed.

“They’re hard to find, so prevention is the best treatment,” said Larrimore.

You can run into ticks any time of year, but they’re more common during warmer months — April to September for the northeastern United States, and through fall and winter in milder places like California.

Ticks prefer grassy or wooded areas, which can include parks and backyards. When walking or hiking, stick to the middle of trails to avoid picking up a hitchhiking tick.

The CDC recommends treating your clothing and outdoor gear with permethrin.

You can also wear an appropriate insect repellant, such as one that contains DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or picaridin.

A word of warning: These repellants may not be suitable for infants and younger children.

To reduce the chance of a tick attaching to your skin, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. You can also tuck your shirt into your pants and the pant legs into your boots.

Checking for ticks

Check your clothing for ticks as soon as you come indoors. You can kill ticks by running your clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes on high.

Shower within two hours of being outdoors to remove unattached ticks.

Check your body for ticks, especially under your arms, inside your belly button, in and around your hair and ears, between your legs, behind your knees, and around your waist.

You can pick up ticks from your animals and outdoor gear, so check them carefully after they’ve been outside as well.

Also, make note of any changes in your health after a tick bite or spending time where ticks are common.

“If you’ve been exposed to ticks and develop symptoms soon afterwards — such as a few weeks after going camping — then you should definitely go and get checked out by a doctor,” said Larrimore.

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