Ehrlichiosis is a bacterial illness transmitted by ticks that causes flu-like symptoms. The signs and symptoms of ehrlichiosis range from mild body aches to severe fever and usually appear within a week or two of a tick bite. If treated quickly with appropriate antibiotics, ehrlichiosis generally improves within a few days.
Another tick-borne infection â anaplasmosis â is closely related to ehrlichiosis. But the two have distinct differences and are caused by different microorganisms.
The best way to prevent these infections is to avoid tick bites. Tick repellents, thorough body checks after being outside and proper removal of ticks give you the best chance of avoiding ehrlichiosis.
If a tick carrying the bacterium that causes ehrlichiosis has been feeding on you for at least 24 hours, the following flu-like signs and symptoms may appear â usually within seven to 14 days of the bite:
Some people infected with ehrlichiosis may have symptoms so mild that they never seek medical attention, and the body fights off the illness on its own. But untreated ehrlichiosis with persistent symptoms can result in an illness serious enough to require hospitalization.
It may take as long as 14 days after a tick bite for you to begin showing signs and symptoms of ehrlichiosis. If you get symptoms within two weeks of a tick bite, see your doctor.
If you experience any of the above symptoms soon after you've been in an area known to have ticks, see your doctor. Be sure to tell your doctor that you recently received a tick bite or visited an area with a high population of ticks.
Ehrlichiosis is caused by ehrlichia bacteria and is transmitted primarily by the Lone Star tick.
Ticks feed on blood, latching onto a host and feeding until they're swollen to many times their normal size. During feeding, ticks that carry disease-producing bacteria can transmit the bacteria to a healthy host. Or they may pick up bacteria themselves if the host, such as a white-tailed deer or a coyote, is infected.
Usually, to get ehrlichiosis, you must be bitten by an infected tick. The bacteria enter your skin through the bite and eventually make their way into your bloodstream.
Before bacteria can be transmitted, a tick must be attached and feeding for at least 24 hours. An attached tick with a swollen appearance may have been feeding long enough to have transmitted bacteria. Removing ticks as soon as possible may prevent infection.
It's also possible that ehrlichiosis may be transmitted through blood transfusions, from mother to fetus, and through direct contact with an infected, slaughtered animal.
Tick-borne infections are difficult to diagnose based solely on signs and symptoms because the signs and symptoms, such as fever and muscle aches, are similar to many other common conditions.
Abnormal findings on a number of blood tests, combined with your history of possible exposure, may lead your doctor to suspect a tick-borne illness. If you have ehrlichiosis, your blood tests will likely show:
More specific blood tests for ehrlichiosis include:
If you live in an area where ticks are common, your doctor may start you on antibiotics before the results of the blood tests return because earlier treatment results in a better outcome for some tick-borne diseases.
Without prompt treatment, ehrlichiosis can have serious effects on an otherwise healthy adult or child.
People with weakened immune systems are at an even higher risk of more-serious and potentially life-threatening consequences. Serious complications of untreated infection include:
The best way to steer clear of ehrlichiosis is to avoid tick bites.
Most ticks attach themselves to your lower legs and feet as you walk or work in grassy, wooded areas or overgrown fields. After a tick attaches to your body, it usually crawls upward to find a location to burrow into your skin. You may find a tick on the back of your knees, groin, underarms, ears, back of your neck and elsewhere.
If you remove a tick in the first 24 hours after attachment, you reduce your risk of infection. While you may not be able to avoid going into areas where ticks are present, the following tips can make it easier to discover and remove ticks before they attach to your skin:
Apply repellent. Products containing DEET (Off! Deep Woods, Repel) or permethrin (Repel Permanone) often repel ticks. Permethrin is for use on clothing only. You can use DEET on your skin or clothing, but follow recommendations on the label.
For children, use a DEET repellent containing less than 30 percent DEET, and use the product with caution. Don't use DEET on your or your children's hands or faces.
Inspect your body. Do a complete visual inspection of your body. Be sure to check your head and neck because ticks will continue to climb upward until they find a suitable burrowing site. Use your hands to feel through your hair and in areas you can't see when you return from your outing or garden.
Ticks can be as small as a strawberry seed, and they usually attach to hidden skin. Be sure to check all the possibilities. A shower alone will rarely dislodge attached ticks from your head and body.
If you find a tick on your body, don't be alarmed. If you remove the tick within 24 hours of its attachment, it's unlikely you'll get ehrlichiosis or other tick-borne illnesses. Follow these steps for safe removal of ticks:
Remove the tick slowly. Grab the tick by its mouth parts where it has attached to your skin. Pull it up and out of your skin steadily and slowly without jerking or twisting it.
If you pull too quickly or grab the tick by its body, the tick will likely separate, leaving the mouth parts in your skin. If the tick's mouth parts do break off in your skin, remove them with tweezers.
Petroleum jelly and hot matches are not effective treatments for removing ticks or tick parts from your skin. These methods may make matters worse by triggering the tick to release more of its bodily fluids, and that could cause further infection.
Kill the tick. Once you have successfully removed the tick, kill it by placing it in a container with rubbing alcohol in it. Don't crush the tick in your hands or with your fingernails because the fluids it releases may contain infected bacteria.
If you want to save the tick for testing in the event you become ill, put it in a plastic bag or a jar, date the container and place it in the freezer.
Monitor the bite site. In the following days and weeks, watch the bite site for a rash and pay close attention to any signs and symptoms that develop such as fever, muscle aches or joint pain.
If you notice anything out of the ordinary, see your doctor. If possible, bring the tick with you to your appointment.
Ehrlichiosis spreads when an infected tick, primarily the Lone Star tick, bites you and feeds on you for 24 hours or longer. The following factors may increase your risk of getting tick-borne infections: