The Facts About Tick-Borne Diseases

Tick-borne illnesses are scary, but usually treatable with antibiotics

Getting outside has tons of benefits for your physical and mental health, but spending more time outside can also increase your risk for tick-borne diseases. Diseases caused by ticks, including Lyme disease, have been on the rise in the United States, more than doubling in the ten years between 2006 to 2016.

Nearly 50,000 tick disease cases are reported each year.

While Lyme disease is the most well-known and most common tick-borne disease, there are others that you should know about. Here are the most prevalent tick-borne diseases, and what you should know about preventing and diagnosing tick bites. 

hikers walking in long grass

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Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness in the United States. In 2018, more than 33,000 cases of Lyme disease were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While Lyme disease can be treated if it’s caught early, it can have life-long effects if it is not. 

Area

Almost all cases of Lyme disease are reported in the Northeast or the upper Midwest, although the area in which Lyme disease is found is expanding. The majority of cases are found in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia ,and Wisconsin.

Symptoms

Symptoms of Lyme disease show up three to 30 days after a person is bitten by a deer tick. These ticks, which are about the size of a sesame seed, can be very difficult to spot. Early symptoms of Lyme disease include:

  • A bull’s eye rash—known as erythema migrans—with a red circle surrounding the tick bite
  • Flu-like symptoms including fever, aches, and chills
  • Fatigue or joint pain

If left untreated, the symptoms of Lyme disease can progress to include:

  • Chronic joint inflammation or pain
  • Hepatitis
  • Heart disease
  • Eye trouble 

Diagnosis 

If you have the bull’s eye rash, it can be easy to connect your symptoms with Lyme disease. However, about one-quarter of people don’t get this rash, and many don’t notice that they’ve been bitten by a tick.

That can make diagnosing Lyme disease difficult, especially since the bacteria that causes the disease is difficult to detect in lab tests. In most cases, getting a diagnosis comes down to talking with your doctor about your symptoms and history. 

Treatment

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria carried by the infected tick. Because of that, it can be treated with antibiotics. The treatment for Lyme disease will depend on how long you’ve had symptoms:

  • If it’s caught early, a course of oral antibiotics will be enough.
  • If it’s caught later, you might need IV antibiotics.

In some cases, your doctor might suggest using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to control pain. 

Anaplasmosis

Anaplasmosis is transmitted by the same deer ticks that carry Lyme disease. However, anaplasmosis is caused by a different bacteria than the one that causes Lyme disease, so people with anaplasmosis have different symptoms.

Area

Like Lyme disease, anaplasmosis is most common in the Northeast and the northern states of the Midwest. As the deer tick habitat expands, however, it’s being found in new places. 

Symptoms

Symptoms of anaplasmosis begin appearing five to 14 days after a tick bite. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Severe headache
  • Gastrointestinal issues including vomiting and diarrhea 

If left untreated, anaplasmosis can lead to low platelet counts, liver damage, and anemia. 

Diagnosis 

Your healthcare provider can order certain blood tests to look for evidence of anaplasmosis or other illnesses that cause similar symptoms.

Treatment

Anaplasmosis is treated using the antibiotic doxycycline. Usually, the treatment lasts for about a week, or until three days after symptoms abate.

Related Conditions


Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne illness closely related to anaplasmosis. Together, these diseases are diagnosed in about 6,000 people annually. Ehrlichiosis can be diagnosed using a blood sample. 

Babesiosis

Babesiosis is a tick-borne disease that is similar to malaria in that it is caused by a parasite that affects red blood cells.

Area

Babesiosis is carried by the same deer ticks that carry Lyme disease and anaplasmosis. Because of that, it’s most common in the Northeast and the upper Midwest, although it could occur outside those regions.

Symptoms

The symptoms of babesiosis can appear within a week of a tick bite, but can also take up to nine weeks or more to begin. Oftentimes, the first symptoms of babesiosis include a high fever and chills.

Other symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache and general aches
  • Upset stomach and nausea
  • Dark urine

Diagnosis

The time that elapses between infection with babesiosis and the onset of symptoms can make it difficult to diagnose.

The symptoms of babesiosis can also be similar to Lyme disease, and 6% to 23% of people with babesiosis also have Lyme disease, making diagnosis even more complicated. The parasite that causes babesiosis can be detected in blood samples for a definitive diagnosis. 

Treatment

In cases without symptoms, babesiosis can resolve on its own, but in other cases with symptoms, treatment is required. Patients with babesiosis are treated using a combination of antiparasitic and antibiotic medications.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever


Rocky Mountain spotted fever
(RMSF) is a potentially fatal tick-borne illness. It can be passed by the American dog tick, brown dog tick, or Rocky Mountain wood tick. It’s critical to get treatment for this disease as soon as you begin exhibiting symptoms, since it can have severe health implications within five days of a tick bite.

RMSF can be fatal in more than one-third of people who do not seek treatment.

Area

The name of RMSF can be a bit misleading. This illness can be spread by ticks in any state. Most cases aren’t found in the Rocky Mountains, but in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arizona.

Symptoms

Symptoms of RMSF begin appearing three to 12 days after a tick bite.

Initially, symptoms include:

  • High fever
  • Severe headache
  • Vomiting 

By day five of symptoms, you can experience severe complications including organ and respiratory failure. A spotted rash that’s associated with RMSF usually only appears once symptoms are severe. If you have a sudden, unexplained fever, reach out to your doctor, especially if you recently had a tick bite.

Diagnosis

RMSF is diagnosed after discussing your symptoms and history with your doctor. Lab tests that show a low white blood cell count or low platelet count can help with diagnosis, but doctors will usually begin treatment immediately rather than waiting for blood work, which can take up to four weeks to confirm the disease. 

Treatment

Antibiotics, including doxycycline or chloramphenicol are used to treat RMSF. Doctors will start treatment, most often with doxycycline, as soon as they believe you have RMSF. This stops symptoms from progressing to dangerous levels.

Related Conditions

Another tick-borne disease, rickettsiosis, presents with similar symptoms to RMSF. Rickettsiosis is more common in states in the southeast and mid-Atlantic.

Its symptoms are generally less severe than those of RMSF but still warrant immediate treatment. Together, there are about 5,500 cases of RMSF and rickettsiosis annually.

Tularemia

Tularemia is a very rare tick-borne disease. It can occur in any state but is diagnosed in fewer than 300 people each year.

People with tularemia can experience a range of symptoms not seen with other tick-borne illnesses, including sore throat and a sore or cut at the bite site.

Symptoms

The symptoms of tularemia most often appear three to five days after a tick bite but can appear up to three weeks after. They can include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms including vomiting
  • Sore throat
  • Pain or soreness at the bite site

Diagnosis

Tularemia can be diagnosed using lab tests that look for antibodies made in response to the bacteria that cause tularemia. 

Treatment

People with tularemia are treated using antibiotics for at least 10 days. 

Preventing Tick Borne Diseases

Educating yourself about ticks can help prevent the spread of tick-borne diseases. This is especially important if you live in an area with a lot of ticks, including the northeast. Although tick bites can happen any time of year, ticks are most active during the warm summer months, so that’s when you’ll want to exercise the most precautions. 

To reduce your risk of contracting a tick-borne illness: 

  • Landscape your yard: Ticks and the animals that carry them often hide in brush, so clearing away clutter can keep them at bay. If you live in a wooded area, use mulch to separate your yard from the woods.
  • Use bug spray: Using a bug spray with DEET every time you’re outdoors can help keep ticks away. You can also treat your clothes and accessories with a solution that contains 0.5% permethrin.
  • Treat your cats and dogs for ticks: This can help reduce the risk that they bring ticks into the house.

Wearing long-sleeved clothing and tucking your pants into your socks can help you keep ticks off your skin. However, one of the most effective things that you can do to reduce the risk of contracting a tick-borne illness is to check yourself for ticks after being outside. Here’s how:

  • Scan clothing for ticks: For this reason, light-colored clothing is best. Pay close attention to your ankles and other areas that came into contact with grass or brush.
  • Check yourself and your children for ticks: Pay close attention to armpits, the ears, the belly button, the hairline, the groin, and behind the knees.
  • Shower: Plan to do this soon after being outside.

For a tick to transmit disease, it must be attached for 10 hours or more. If you catch a tick before that time, chances are you’ve avoided infection. 

Removing Ticks

If you see a tick that has attached itself to your skin, don’t panic or turn to old wives’ tales like burning off the tick. Instead, follow these CDC recommendations:

  • Use a pair of tweezers to grip the tick close to the skin.
  • Gently and firmly pull, avoiding twisting the tick.
  • If any parts of the tick are left behind, try to remove them with the tweezers. However, if that doesn’t work, leave them alone — don’t scratch at the skin, which could introduce infection. 
  • Wash the area with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. 

If you don't have a pair of tweezers, doctors recommend putting soap on a piece of paper towel and gently rubbing the tick until it detaches.

Diagnosing Tick-Borne Illnesses

Learning about all the different diseases that ticks can cause can be overwhelming.

If you know you have been bitten by a tick, or you begin experiencing unexplained symptoms, it’s best to reach out to your doctor, who can make a formal diagnosis and help you get the treatment that you need. Although it can be difficult to tell one tick-borne disease from another, the treatments for many tick-borne illnesses are similar, so your doctor might not need to know the specific tick-borne illness that you have before starting treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Tick-borne illnesses can be frightening, but they're a fact of life for millions of Americans who live in areas with plentiful tick populations.

If you notice a tick bite and begin having symptoms of Lyme disease or another tick-borne illness, call your doctor. Many diseases caused by ticks get worse with time, so it’s important to get on a course of antibiotics as soon as possible. That way you can be back to feeling like yourself—and exploring the great outdoors—in no time.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tickborne disease surveillance data summary. Updated November 4, 2019. 

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. Be alert to an increasingly common threat: tick-borne illnesses. Updated August 2019.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tickborne diseases of the United States. Updated January 10, 2019. 

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anaplasmosis. Updated January 11, 2019.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anaplasmosis. Updated January 11, 2019.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Babesiosis. Updated March 31, 2020.

  7. Yale Medicine. Tick-borne illnesses

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Updated May 7, 2019.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rickettsia parkeri Rickettsiosis. Updated January 10, 2019.