When most of us hear the phrase "tickborne illness" our minds immediately leap to Lyme disease. Unfortunately, Lyme disease has a new companion for concern in our region, and it goes by the name of babesiosis.
Carried by the same deer ticks that spread Lyme disease, babesiosis is a tiny parasite that affects red blood cells. The third-most common tickborne illness in the state of Vermont, the vast majority of cases of babesiosis are reported in the state's southern-most counties: Bennington, Rutland, Windsor and Windham.
While anyone can contract babesiosis, it poses the greatest risk to infants, the elderly, as well as those with a weakened immune system or without a spleen. When not diagnosed and treated early, it can lead to complications such as kidney, lung or heart failure, or even death.
According to Bob Schwartz, MD, of SVMC Northshire Campus, "The challenge of babesiosis is that, unlike Lyme, there's no tell-tale rash to alert you to a potential problem. Many people who contract it do not get sick or experience symptoms. And for those that do, the symptoms—which can take weeks to months to develop—can be vague."
Potential symptoms of babesiosis include:
- flu-like symptoms including sweats and chills
- muscle aches
- general pain
Schwartz notes that, "People who have Babesiosis may have other tick borne illness such as anaplasmosis or Lyme disease at the same time." Babesiosis is diagnosed through a blood test and can be treated with medication including anti-parasitics and antibiotics. In more severe cases, additional supportive measures might be required.
As with Lyme disease, the best way to prevent babesiosis is by avoiding areas where ticks are found. If you live in or frequent areas where ticks are found, Schwartz suggests the following:
- Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and socks when outdoors, tucking your pants into your socks.
- Apply insect repellent to your clothing and skin; use a repellent that contains 20 percent or more DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 on exposed skin, and follow the directions on the package.
- Walk on cleared trails and avoid paths through tall grasses or brush.
- Inspect your whole body for ticks after being outdoors; use a mirror or ask others to check your back and the back of your legs.
"If you find a tick, don’t panic," advises Schwartz. "A tick must attach to your skin before it can transmit any disease. Attachment usually takes some time after the tick has first contacted your skin or clothing. And once it attaches there is some time before it can transmit a parasite to you."
If you do find an attached tick, he says, "Remove it immediately. Use pointed tweezers or a tick-removal device. Grab the tick as close to the skin as possible, and pull it straight upwards. Do not use any lubricants or hot objects. Don't worry about mouthparts remaining in your skin. They do not increase the chances of infection and will come out on their own. Disinfect the area with alcohol or other disinfectant. If you can, identify the tick using online resources for possible reference later. Then dispose of it down the sink or toilet."
Once the tick is removed, Schwartz suggests staying alert to symptoms. "Not all ticks carry diseases, but if you notice symptoms, see a doctor right away."