When you think of a nasty tick bite, your mind probably jumps to Lyme disease—a bacterial infection that causes flu-like symptoms. But the truth is, several tick-borne diseases have been on the rise in the United States for several years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While Lyme is the most common by far, another serious infection is starting to make its mark: Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF).
More than have been reported to the CDC from 2004 to 2016. In fact, most recently, a Wisconsin woman in her late 50s died just days after being diagnosed with RMSF in June, the .
RMSF is a disease caused by a spotted fever group of bacteria called , according to the CDC. It’s most commonly transmitted through infected American dog ticks, brown dog ticks, or mountain wood ticks. Despite its name, Colorado doesn’t seem to be the main hotspot for the disease: most reports stem from North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Because RMSF progresses rapidly, it can be life-threatening. The tricky part is catching it early, so learning to recognize the warning signs is crucial. Here’s everything you need to know about RMSF—and how to protect yourself from ever having to deal with it in the first place.
What are the symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever?
The problem with RMSF is that its earliest signs don’t seem like too much to worry about—in fact, they’re also quite similar to the flu. But because the disease can be deadly, it’s crucial to diagnose it as soon as possible, . Keep an eye out for the following symptoms, especially if you feel a fever coming on after hanging out in a tick-friendly environment (think: wooded or high brush areas). They usually pop up 2 to 14 days after being bitten:
- Fever and chills
- Confusion or hallucinations
- Sensitivity to light
- Rash on the skin
- Nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting
- Stomach or muscle pain
- Lack of appetite
While a rash doesn’t affect every person infected, it is still the most telltale sign of RMSF and can vary in appearance from person to person. Some turn red and splotchy while others look like pinpointed dots on the skin (usually 1 to 5 millimeters in size), typically starting at the palm of your hands or the soles of your feet, according to the .
How is Rocky Mountain spotted fever treated?
RMSF treatment needs to be administered quickly to avoid complications. If you're showing symptoms, your doctor may do some blood tests to verify that you're infected, but you will probably be prescribed antibiotics before your results come back due to the aggressive progression of the disease.
The most effective treatment is a round of —a type of antibiotic that can keep the disease from turning deadly—ideally within five days of experiencing symptoms, says the CDC. Other antibiotic options include , or chloramphenicol if you’re pregnant.
⚠️ About 3 percent of RMSF cases are fatal, because the infection can lead to brain damage, heart, lung, and kindey failure, or meningitis when left untreated.
The good news is, most people make a full recovery when treatment is given within 5 days of infection. If it's delayed, complications can be very serious, and include inflammation of the brain, heart, or lungs, kidney failure, serious infection, and even death.
How can you protect yourself from Rocky Mountain spotted fever?
The National Institutes of Health estimates that carry the bacteria related to RMSF. If you do get a bite, your chances of infection aren’t as high if the tick has been latched onto you for less than 20 hours. (Here’s the if you do find one on your body.)
That doesn’t mean RMSF isn’t a real concern, though, because there’s no vaccine to prevent it. The best thing you can do to stay healthy while you spend time outdoors this summer is to in the first place. Here are a few measures you can take to keep the blood-sucking bugs at bay:
- Cover up with long-sleeved shirts and pants if you’re hanging out in the woods or other grassy areas.
- Look for a that contains at least 20 percent DEET, IR3535, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Before you buy, make sure it is . Spray your clothes and exposed skin when you venture outdoors.
- Treat your clothing, gear, or tents with permethrin (a type of insecticide) up to 48 hours before you head out. Look for a repellent that contains at least 0.5 percent, .
- Shower after spending time outdoors and do a full body check for the critters. Pay extra attention to your underarms, ears, inside your belly button, behind your knees, between your legs, and in your hair.
- Scan your pets, as many ticks get into your home this way.
- Dry your clothes on high heat for 10 minutes to kill any ticks that may be left on your clothing. If you need to wash, use hot water and dry for at least an hour.
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