are raising new concerns in Tennessee as new types and infections emerge. Tick-related illnesses have more than doubled in Tennessee since 2005. There were almost 400 cases last year, most of them . There have been six deaths from Rocky Mountain fever in the state since 2001. Certain species of ticks that were uncommon in the state are being found in new areas. Ticks that were previously rare in Tennessee, such as Gulf Coast and ticks, have now been found to be much more widespread, possibly because of climate change. Both are associated with tick-borne infections. “It is a big concern because it can result in a fatality,” Abelardo Moncayo of the Tennessee Department of Health told The Tennessean.
Angela Doss said she lost three months to a tick bite. After camping at Old Hickory Lake, she woke up with a stiff neck and a blinding headache. Her brain was swelling from a bacterial infection from a tick. Doss was hospitalized for six days and saw a neurologist weekly for three months. She missed months of work. “I don’t go camping anymore,” she said with a laugh. “Or if I do, I am adamant about checking (myself) for ticks. Not everybody who gets bit by a tick gets ill. I was just the one who got it.”
Graham Hickling, a University of Tennessee research professor who is studying and other tick illnesses, said some tick-borne illnesses, if untreated, “could go very bad, very fast.” Nationally, Lyme disease gets the most attention. It has been concentrated in the Northeast, where deer ticks, also called black-legged ticks, transmit it. Hickling helps lead a five-state research group on Lyme. His students have found black-legged ticks throughout Tennessee, but in low numbers. And tests have not found the ticks carrying the pathogen that causes Lyme in humans.
Tick-borne issues in the Southeast are other things, he said. “If you are getting infected, the first candidate is the Lone Star tick, which is common and aggressive.” Lone Star ticks have been linked to , the illness that felled Doss. They also may carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is being renamed as . Tennessee is among four Southeast states that have accounted for almost half of all nationwide cases of spotted fever since 1995.
In 2009, the state recorded its first case of . The patient was a deer hunter, and the state tracked where he had been and found the Babesia parasites in deer ticks there, Moncayo said. Babesia requires different drugs than other tick infections. It can be spread through many types of contact, and there is no screening for donors, Moncayo said. All those factors have prompted the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin tracking Babesia cases for the first time this year. People are probably encountering ticks more often as suburban growth pushes into tick habitat, Moncayo said. Ticks typically get active when weather becomes warm in the spring. Infection reports peak in June and July.
Treatment is most successful within five days of symptoms. That’s why anyone who feels ill and has been around ticks needs to go to a physician and start treatment, even before blood tests show an infection. Most people recover fully, but some infections can cause lasting damage. And the longer an infection goes untreated, the more harm can be done. Moncayo said ticks are part of life in Tennessee. “You should still be able to enjoy the outdoors, but be aware they’re out there,” he said. “If you have a tick bite, don’t shrug off symptoms if they develop. But if you get a tick, don’t worry if you don’t feel sick.”
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