What is ehrlichiosis?

Ehrlichiosis is a bacterial infection. The infection is caused by a tick bite. The ticks that spread ehrlichiosis are the Lone Star tick, the deer tick, and the dog tick. Dogs, cattle, and other animals have always gotten ehrlichiosis. In the mid 1980s, scientists discovered the infection occurs in humans as well. Ehrlichiosis occurs in almost any area of the United States. It happens mostly in the southeastern and south central areas of the country. Also, it’s found in many foreign countries.

Symptoms of ehrlichiosis

Ehrlichiosis symptoms are similar to the flu. They usually begin 1 to 2 weeks after you’ve been bitten by an infected tick. Symptoms may take up to 1 month to appear. They include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • fatigue
  • malaise (a general feeling of not being well)
  • headache
  • joint and muscle aches
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • confusion
  • rash (more common in children).

Most cases of ehrlichiosis are mild. Some people who have ehrlichiosis do not develop symptoms. Their bodies fight off the infection without treatment. Ehrlichiosis can become serious if the infection isn’t caught early. Symptoms of a more serious case of ehrlichiosis include:

  • seizures
  • difficulty breathing
  • coma
  • kidney failure.

Ehrlichiosis feels like the flu at first. That means it’s important to see your doctor if you feel like you have the flu in the early days and weeks after you’ve been bitten by a tick. Tell your doctor that you were bitten by a tick and when it happened. If you know the type of tick, give your doctor that information, also.

What causes ehrlichiosis?

Bacteria from a tick bite causes ehrlichiosis. People who spend time outdoors in areas where ticks are common (either for work or recreation) are at higher risk of getting ehrlichiosis. Ticks usually wait near the top of grassy plants and low bushes for people or animals to brush up against their perch. Ticks will crawl upward on people’s clothes or bodies for up to several hours or more before attaching to the skin.

How is ehrlichiosis diagnosed?

Your doctor will examine your body to see if you have evidence of a tick bite. A blood test will confirm ehrlichiosis.

Can ehrlichiosis be prevented or avoided?

The best way to prevent tick bites is to avoid being bitten. When you are outdoors, follow these guidelines:

  • Use tick repellents (follow instructions on label). Choose a repellent containing 20% to 30% of the chemical DEET. Tick repellents that contain DEET can be put directly on your skin (sparingly) or on your clothing. Don’t apply it to your face or on children’s hands, and don’t use it on infants younger than 2 months of age. Repellents containing the chemical permethrin should be put only on clothing. Talk to your doctor before using any tick repellent on your child. Your doctor can give you more information on what type and strength of repellent is safe to use.
  • Wear light-colored clothing that covers most of your skin when you are outdoors near the woods or an area overgrown with grass and bushes. This makes it easier to see and remove ticks from your clothing. Wear a long-sleeved shirt. Wear pants instead of shorts. Tuck your pant legs into your socks or boots for added protection. Ticks are usually found close to the ground, especially in moist, shaded areas. Check your entire body for ticks after being in tick-infested areas. Check your children and pets for ticks. Common tick bite locations include the back of the knees, groin area, underarms, ears, scalp, and the back of the neck.
  • Remove any attached ticks as soon as possible. To remove a tick, use fine tweezers to grab the tick firmly by the head (or as close to the head as possible) and pull. Do not use heat (such as a lit match), petroleum jelly, or other methods to try to make the tick “back out” on its own. These are not effective.
  • Wash the area where the tick was attached with soap and water. Keep an eye on the area for a few weeks and note any changes. Call your doctor if you develop a rash around the area where the tick was attached. Be sure to tell your doctor that you were bitten by a tick and when it happened. Only people who get sick and/or get a rash after being bitten by a tick need antibiotics. If you are bitten by a tick and don’t get sick or get a rash, you don’t need antibiotics.

Ehrlichiosis treatment

Many times, your body will fight off the ehrlichiosis infection on its own. For more severe cases, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic to treat it.

Living with ehrlichiosis

Living with ehrlichiosis will be uncomfortable, as you feel like you have the flu. You also will need to remember to take your antibiotics as your doctor prescribes them. It is important to finish taking all of your medicine.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How should I dispose of a tick once I get it off?
  • Should I apply an antibiotic cream to the bite once I get the tick off?
  • What if I don’t see the tick on my body for days? Will it get worse the longer it is attached to my skin?