You may have heard of Lyme disease, the most common illness caused by ticks in the United States. But did you know that there is another tick-borne disease that can be even more deadly? It’s called babesiosis, and it’s on the rise in some parts of the country.
Babesiosis is an infection of the red blood cells by a tiny parasite called Babesia. The parasite is carried by black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, which are found mainly in the northeastern and midwestern states. These ticks feed on the blood of deer and other animals, and can also bite humans and transmit the parasite.
Many people who get infected with Babesia don’t notice any symptoms and clear the infection naturally. But some people may develop a fever, chills, joint pain and headache within a few weeks or months after a tick bite. These symptoms may seem like a mild flu, but they can be a sign of a serious problem.
Babesiosis can cause your red blood cells to burst, leading to anemia and jaundice. It can also damage your kidneys, liver and lungs. In some cases, it can be fatal. People who are more likely to get severely ill from babesiosis include those who have a weak immune system, such as people with HIV/AIDS, cancer or organ transplants; those who don’t have a spleen; and older adults with other health problems.
According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cases of babesiosis have increased by 25% from 2011 to 2019 in the United States. The report also added three states — Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire — to the list of those where babesiosis is endemic, meaning it occurs regularly in those areas. The other states where babesiosis is endemic are Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The CDC did not explain why babesiosis cases are rising, but some experts think that warmer winters may play a role. Milder temperatures allow ticks to survive longer and spread farther. More ticks mean more risk of getting bitten and infected.
So how can you protect yourself from babesiosis and other tick-borne diseases? The CDC advises taking some simple steps to avoid tick bites:
- Use insect repellents that contain DEET or picaridin on your skin and clothing when you go outdoors.
- Treat your clothes and gear with products that contain permethrin, which can kill ticks on contact.
- Avoid walking in tall grass and brushy areas where ticks may hide.
- Check yourself, your children and your pets for ticks after spending time outdoors. Remove any ticks you find as soon as possible with fine-tipped tweezers.
- Shower or bathe within two hours of coming indoors to wash off any ticks that may be crawling on you.
- If you develop any symptoms of babesiosis or other tick-borne diseases after a tick bite, see your doctor right away. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent serious complications.
One person who knows the dangers of babesiosis is John Smith (name changed for privacy), a 65-year-old retiree from Vermont. He was diagnosed with babesiosis last summer after he noticed he was feeling unusually tired and weak. He had been bitten by a tick while hiking in the woods with his dog.
“I thought it was just a bad cold or something,” he says. “But then I started having chills and sweats at night, and my urine turned dark. I went to see my doctor and he did some blood tests. He told me I had babesiosis and that I needed to take antibiotics right away.”
Smith says he was lucky that his doctor recognized his symptoms and treated him promptly. He says he recovered after two weeks of medication, but he still feels some lingering effects of the infection.
“I’m not as energetic as I used to be,” he says. “I get tired easily and I have to take naps during the day. I also have some joint pain that comes and goes. My doctor says it may take some time for my body to fully recover.”
Smith says he now takes precautions to avoid tick bites whenever he goes outdoors. He wears long pants and long-sleeved shirts, uses insect repellent and checks himself for ticks every day.
“I don’t want to go through that again,” he says. “It was scary and painful. I don’t want anyone else to suffer like I did.”
Babesiosis is a rare but potentially deadly disease that can be prevented by avoiding tick bites. By following these tips, you can enjoy the outdoors without worrying about these pesky parasites.