Ticks can spread more than just Lyme disease: What to know about diseases like anaplasmosis, Powassan virus & more

Lyme disease might be the most common tick-borne illness, but there are several other diseases you should know about this summer.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

A female blacklegged tick crawling on a person's skin ready to bite. Ticks carry several diseases, and they might be spreading in Canada. (Photo via Getty Images)
Blacklegged ticks are the most common carriers of Lyme disease in Canada, but what other tick-borne illnesses should you know about? (Photo via Getty Images)

Ticks are the kinds of critters typically no one enjoys coming into contact with. From the dangers of Lyme disease to rising cases of anaplasmosis in Canada, it's a good idea to understand some of the tick-borne illnesses you — or even your beloved pet — could contract if you're spending any time outdoors this summer.

Across the country, there are more than 40 species of ticks. Additionally, experts warn ticks might be "fitter, better, faster and stronger" this year, and populations might be growing rapidly in Canada. But what exactly are the different tick-borne diseases you should be aware of? Scroll below to read more about ailments like anaplasmosis, babesiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi, which is spread through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. For most people, Lyme disease is contracted from a nymphs, which are about the size of poppy seeds, or adult female ticks, which are roughly the same size as sesame seeds.

Health Canada indicates these ticks must be attached for at least 24 hours in order to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. However, it's worth noting not all blacklegged ticks are infected. They'll only carry the bacteria after feeding on infected animals, including birds and rodents.

Oftentimes, Lyme disease symptoms can be mistaken for the flu. Within the first three to 30 days after a bite from an infected tick, a person might suffer a fever, chills, headache, swollen lymph nodes, muscle aches and fatigue.

A bullseye rash on a person's skin. (Photo via Getty Images)
A bullseye-shaped rash is a tell-tale sign of Lyme disease. (Photo via Getty Images)

Luckily, you might be able to decipher if it's Lyme disease by looking out for a rash — called Erythema migrans — that often develops at the site of the tick bite. These occur in roughly 70 to 80 per cent of infections, typically a week after infection. This rash might grow up to 12 inches in size and may feel warm or hot to the touch.

Eventually, symptoms might progress to include a severe headache and neck stiffness, as well as more rashes on other parts of the body. Other symptoms might include facial palsy, arthritis, nerve pain, dizziness, heart palpitations, shooting pains or tingling in the hands or feet as well as short-term memory problems.

Due to climate change, blacklegged ticks are spreading to new parts of Canada. Moreover, it's not impossible to encounter one of theses ticks outside of where it's known to live.

The federal government's Lyme disease risk map indicates these ticks live in a few provinces, typically in southern zones. Nova Scotia and southern New Brunswick are considered risk areas; parts of southern Manitoba are also included, including Winnipeg, Brandon and Dauphin. Vancouver Island and southern British Columbia are also hot spot areas, including areas like Kelowna, Kamloops and Vancouver. In Ontario and Quebec, these ticks might be living in the southern parts of those provinces, including Montreal, the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa. They might also be found in Thunder Bay and Kenora in Western Ontario, as well.

Parts of Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are considered areas with Lyme disease risk. (Photo via the Government of Canada)
Parts of Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are considered areas with Lyme disease risk. (Photo via the Government of Canada)

Like Lyme disease, anaplasmosis is spread by infected blacklegged ticks. However, the human version of this condition is caused by Anaplasma phagocytophilum. Sometimes, anaplasmosis might be called human granulocytic anaplasmosis, or HGA.

Anaplasmosis typically presents symptoms similar to that of the flu. But unlike Lyme disease, people who contract this ailment usually won't develop a rash. Sometimes, it can even be asymptomatic.

The National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCCID) indicates fever, chills, headache, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite might be symptoms of anaplasmosis. Symptoms typically start within a week or two of a tick bite.

A closeup of a blacklegged tick on a person's skin. (Photo via Getty Images)
Ticks carry a range of bacteria, parasites and viruses. (Photo via Getty Images)

If you don't get treatment, more severe symptoms like seizures or confusion might arise. More serious issues might also arise for people who are older than age 50 and for those who are immunocompromised.

Anaplasmosis is spread by infected blacklegged ticks, meaning the same areas where Lyme disease is a concern will also be a concern for this illness. But Central and Eastern Canada are predominantly areas of concern.

A recent Public Health Ontario report shows there were 40 cases of anaplasmosis in the province last year, 17 of which were confirmed. The majority of these cases were between June and August.

According to the NCCID, the first locally recorded case in Canada was in an Alberta resident in 2009, whereas Ontario only reported its first case in 2018. While risk levels across the country are relatively low, it continues to increase.

Babesiosis is also carried by blacklegged ticks that are infected with the parasite Babesia, including Babesia microti, Babesia duncani or Babesia divergens. Cases of the tick-borne infection are considered rare, but it's considered emerging, which means the number of cases has increased in recent years.

Closeup of a blacklegged tick on a skin surface.
Closeup of a blacklegged tick on a skin surface.

Babesiosis symptoms are similar to that of the flu, according to Cleveland Clinic, and they typically begin one to four weeks after exposure. These symptoms may include:

  • High fever

  • Fatigue

  • Chills

  • Sweating

  • Headache

  • Muscle or joint aches

  • Loss of appetite

  • Cough

However, around a quarter of people with babesiosis don't have symptoms. Moreover, this illness doesn't create a rash. Immunocompromised people and anyone who's older is at greater risk of severe illness, which might come with symptoms like jaundice, pale skin, darker urine, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain or sudden mood changes.

Until recently, babesiosis wasn't found in Canada. But as blacklegged ticks spread to provinces like Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia amid climate change and migratory birds, this illness is coming with them. The best way to avoid contracting this ailment is to avoid getting bitten by blacklegged ticks.

A sick women lying down with a blanket and reading her temperature. (Photo via Getty Images)
Flu-like symptoms are common for tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis. (Photo via Getty Images)

Bartonellosis, often known as cat scratch fever, is an infection caused by several species of Bartonella bacteria. There are around 15 species that are known to cause the illness in humans.

Luckily, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes there is no evidence that humans can contract bartonellosis from ticks. Instead, people might get it from fleas, lice, sand flies or from an infected animal, typically a cat. Bartonella has been found in several tick species, including blacklegged ticks, Lone Star ticks and Pacific Coast ticks, causing an issue for pets.

In humans, common bartonellosis symptoms include fever, chills, weakness, body aches, loss of appetite, headaches and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms may appear days or weeks after exposure, and a mild infection typically goes away on its own in two to four months.

Most cases of bartonellosis are mild, but it's possible some species can cause more severe illness. More serious symptoms, which are often seen in people who are immunocompromised, include arthritis, enlarged liver and spleen, nervousness, pneumonia, eye inflammation, and weight loss.

Since bartonella infections are typically transmitted to humans by cat scratches or, rarely, dog bites, it's technically quite prevalent across the country. However, the NCCID notes Canada has only seen eight cases of the illness caused by the Bartonella quintana species since the mid-1990s.

A cat lies in a basket with a blanket. (Photo via Getty Images)
Bartonellosis is often referred to the cat scratch fever, since that's how it's typically transmitted to humans. (Photo via Getty Images)

Ehrlichiosis is most commonly caused by a bacteria called Ehrlichia chaffeensis. Although common, ehrlichiosis is spread to humans by blacklegged and lone star ticks, according to the CDC.

Like the other tick-borne diseases, ehrlichiosis symptoms often begin one to two weeks within a tick bite. Some people might remain asymptomatic, while people who are immunocompromised might see more severe cases. Ehrlichiosis symptoms include:

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Severe headache

  • Muscle aches

  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea

  • Cough

  • Fatigue

  • Joint pain

  • Red eyes

  • Rash

A woman experiencing nausea while she has her head over a toilet. (Photo via Getty Images)
Nausea is a common symptom of tick-borne illnesses. (Photo via Getty Images)

While blacklegged ticks might be able to transmit ehrlichiosis, it's more common to get the illness from a lone star tick. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), these ticks have been found in Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan.

Powassan virus is a rare disease, but it's still contracted by tick bites. Blacklegged ticks are the main culprit of this illness, but in rare cases, groundhog and squirrel ticks can transmit Powassan virus.

After a bite from an infected tick, Powassan virus symptoms might appear anywhere between one and four weeks. Common symptoms include fever and headaches, which can be followed by vomiting, fatigue, confusion, seizures, difficulty speaking or paralysis.

While many people don't have symptoms with Powassan virus, it can also lead to encephalitis. This brain swelling can lead to permanent neurological conditions, like memory issues and paralysis, and it can even be fatal.

The disease was named after Powassan, Ont., which is where the first case of the illness was identified in 1958. On top of where blacklegged ticks are found, groundhog ticks have been spotted in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and the Atlantic provinces. Squirrel ticks, which often don't bite humans, have been found in all of those areas except for Manitoba, according to the PHAC.

A tick walks on a persons hand. (Photo via Getty Images)
Groundhog ticks look similar to blacklegged ticks. Luckily, groundhog ticks haven't been associated with Lyme disease. (Photo via Getty Images)

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is spread by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii. It's a serious tick-borne illness that's spread by the Rocky Mountain wood tick and the American dog tick, BC Centre for Disease Control states.

Early symptoms of RMSF include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, muscle pain and loss of appetite. Moreover, a rash is a common sign of RMSF that typically develops two to four days after a fever begins. The CDC states the rash's appearance may change over the course of the illness, oftentimes appearing late in the infection.

Rocky Mountain wood ticks are most commonly found in southern Alberta and British Columbia. However, they're also increasingly spotted in southwestern Saskatchewan. On the other hand, American dog ticks are established in parts of southcentral and southeastern Canada.

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