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Mercyhealth Warns Dangers of Tick Bites

ROCKFORD, Illinois — The warm summer weather always means more time outside. But combined that with a moist spring, higher deer population, hot temperatures, all bringing a higher risk of contracting tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease. Prevention is the very best treatment for Lyme and next to that, prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic therapy given early will prevent any progression of this infection.

Tick season lasts from spring through fall, with the peak occurring in the summer months – June, July and August.

While there are 15 tick-borne illnesses in the U.S., the following tick-borne diseases affect Illinois and the upper Midwest:

  • Lyme disease
  • Bartonellosis
  • Anaplasmosis
  • Babesiosis
  • Ehrlichiosis
  • Powassan virus/Deer tick virus

The “big three” in Illinois are Lyme, Bartonella and Anaplasmosis/Ehrlichiosis– with Lyme being the most prevalent. Humans can be infected with multiple diseases from just one exposure to the very small ticks, which are about the size of a poppy seed and not commonly noticed by the patient who may have been exposed.

Dr. Bob Tiballi, adult and pediatric infectious disease physician, at Mercyhealth, cautions the dangers of seen and unseen tick bites and offers these tips to stay safe while enjoying the outdoors.

Symptoms of tick-borne illness: Most tick-borne infections are difficult to tell from viral infections such as COVID-19 or influenza due to commonly experienced flu-like symptoms, including fevers, chills, headaches, muscle aches with fatigue and feeling poorly. While 80 percent of people with new Lyme disease develop a rash, 20 percent of those infected do not and sometimes the rash is confused with cellulitis or is located in places that the patient cannot easily see, such as their buttock or back.

  • Lyme disease: There are three different phases of Lyme disease if left untreated. The most common clinical finding is a pink, non-tender rash that can clear in its center to give the appearance of a bull’s-eye rash. This often occurs at the site of the tick bite. Other symptoms can include headaches, fever, malaise, tendon and joint pain, muscle aches and significant fatigue.
  • Anaplasmosis and Ehrlichiosis: Both of these tick-borne illnesses present with more dramatic complaints than Lyme with very high fevers, severe headaches and profound fatigue which may be associated with mental confusion or stroke like symptoms in older patients. Often patients have very significant abnormalities in common blood tests. Anaplasma is affecting many horses in northwestern Illinois and these infections can be a very serious life threatening process in immune compromised adults. Bartonella may cause fevers and chills and may cause elevated liver enzymes, prolonged infection as well as a pimple like rash on the upper trunk, scalp or arms and legs.
  • Babesiosis is more commonly acquired in northern Wisconsin and its symptoms include fever, chills, and fatigue. Babesia microti infects red blood cells and may cause episodic chills, much like malaria. It can sometimes be seen on blood smear.   Untreated, it may cause longstanding infections of the liver and spleen.

 Prevention: The best prevention is to avoid wooded areas and tall grass. If you are enjoying the outdoors, please follow these suggestions:

  • Wear insect repellant that contains 40 percent DEET
  • Wear loose fitting, long sleeved light-colored clothing that has been treated by soaking with permethrin. Ticks are very difficult to spot on dark clothing.
  • Inspect yourself after spending time outside and ask someone to check the spots you can’t see. Look in armpits, behind knees, at the waistline, in ears and hair. Nightly tick checks for children when they take their bath is very important.
  • Check pets for ticks. You can’t get sick from your pet, but the ticks may decide to change hosts and pick you instead.
  • Take a shower as soon as possible. Ticks do not like water and may detach during a shower or bath.
  • It can take time for a tick to embed, so a shower can help knock off any that might not be attached. And if one does become attached, use tweezers to hold the tick close to its head and pull upward with steady pressure. Don’t twist or jerk as this might cause the tick’s mouthparts to remain in the skin.

Dr. Tiballi himself had suffered from neurologic Lyme disease and is passionate about eliminating such advanced illness in others by prevention and aggressive early treatment. Dr. Tiballi offers televisits for early diagnosis and early therapy through Infectious Diseases Clinic at Mercyhealth Physician Clinic–Riverside and office evaluations for people who may have been infected for more than 30 days. For more information about Mercyhealth, visit mercyhealthsystem.org.

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