Definition

What is ehrlichiosis?

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 — anaplasmosis — 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.

How common is ehrlichiosis?

The frequency of reported cases of ehrlichiosis is highest among males and people over 50 years of age. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of ehrlichiosis?

The common symptoms of ehrlichiosis are:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Malaise
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Confusion
  • Conjunctival infection (red eyes)
  • Rash (in up to 60% of children, less than 30% of adults)

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes ehrlichiosis?

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.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for ehrlichiosis?

There are many risk factors for ehrlichiosis, such as:

  • Being outdoors in warm weather. Most cases of ehrlichiosis occur in the spring and summer months when populations of the Lone Star tick are at their peak, and people are outside more often.
  • Living in or visiting an area with a high tick population. You are at greater risk if you are in an area with a high Lone Star tick population. In the United States, Lone Star ticks are most common in southeastern, eastern and south-central states.
  • Being male. Ehrlichiosis infections are more common in males, possibly because of increased time outdoors for work and recreation.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is ehrlichiosis diagnosed?

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:

  • A low white blood cell count — these cells are the body’s disease fighters
  • A low platelet count — platelets are essential to blood clotting
  • Abnormal liver function

More specific blood tests for ehrlichiosis include:

  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. This test helps identify specific genes unique to ehrlichiosis. However, if you’ve already started treatment, the results of this test may be affected.
  • Indirect fluorescent antibody (IFA) test. This test, not used as commonly as the PCR test, measures the amount of antibody you have in your blood to the bacteria that causes ehrlichiosis.

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.

How is ehrlichiosis treated?

If your doctor suspects that you have ehrlichiosis or another tick-borne illness, you’ll likely receive a prescription for the antibiotic doxycycline (Doryx, Vibramycin, others). You’ll generally take the antibiotic for up to 10 days. Your doctor may have you take antibiotics for a longer period if you’re severely ill.

If you’re pregnant, your doctor may prescribe the antibiotic rifampin (Rifadin, Rimactane) instead, because doxycycline isn’t recommended during pregnancy.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage ehrlichiosis?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with ehrlichiosis:

  • Use tweezers if possible. Use a pair of flat-tipped tweezers or cover your hand with a tissue or glove to remove a tick. A tick’s saliva and bodily fluids can carry the same bacterium that’s found in its mouth and the bacterium can enter your body through cuts or mucous membranes in your skin.
  • 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.
  • Clean the bite site. Wash the bite site thoroughly with hand antiseptic or soap and water. And, thoroughly wash your hands.
  • 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.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: September 8, 2017 | Last Modified: September 8, 2017

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