Just In Time For Spring: Tick-Borne Illness is Spreading

More sun, warmer weather, and lush greenery also come with the increased threat of a growing tick-borne disease called babesiosis. Here's what parents need to know.

Boy looks at a tick on his arm
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Spring brings with it more sunlight, warmer weather, and lush greenery—plus kiddos getting back to playing outside. We as parents are used to checking our little ones when they come in from playing outside for those tiny creepy crawlies. Most of us are familiar with Lyme disease, but there's also the increased threat of a growing tick-borne disease you may not have heard of.

In March 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released results from a study that showed a significant increase in cases of babesiosis. It's a rare, tick-transmitted disease that can potentially be fatal. From 2011 to 2019, the CDC reported, instances of the infection have risen by 25%. The uptick in cases has become a cause for concern, especially in northeastern states where the ticks that carry the bacteria are found.

The Rise of Babesiosis Cases

Babesiosis was first discovered more than 50 years ago on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. Since then, the disease has been considered endemic in the surrounding states which include Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island, plus Minnesota and Wisconsin. The CDC found that of the 37 states where babesiosis has been reported, a majority (98.2%) of cases come from just 10 of them.

In that same period of 2011 to 2019, three states—Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire—experienced the largest percent change in babesiosis cases.

Like Lyme disease, babesiosis cases have been climbing in the last few years because of warmer temperatures. Milder weather increases the prevalence of ticks and tick season is lasting longer. This trend is expected to continue and experts believe cases of babesiosis will steadily rise in the near future with the spread of the infection expanding to a larger territory.

Similar to malaria, babesiosis bacteria have complex lifestyles, Daniel Parker, Ph.D., an assistant professor of population health and disease prevention with the UC Irvine Program in Public Health explains. The parasites "reproduce in red blood cells, and are normally transmitted between mammals by ticks (especially Ixodes ticks)." Ixodes ticks are otherwise known as black-legged ticks or deer ticks. Those same ticks are better known for transmitting another, more well-known illness: Lyme disease.

Babesiosis is also transmitted through the blood, and medical professionals found those who acquired the illness through a blood transfusion have more adverse outcomes than those who were bitten by a tick. In 14 states and Washington D.C., donated blood is screened for the infection.

What Are the Symptoms of Babesiosis?

Diagnosis is often complicated because the illness is so rare, and is usually confirmed by a blood test. Symptoms usually present as fever, headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, and occasionally vomiting, nausea, and a general loss of appetite, similar to symptoms of other infections like the flu. Though most cases of babesiosis are symptomatic, sometimes infected persons will show no symptoms at all. If symptoms do develop, they can show up anywhere from within a week to a few months.

Sometimes, however, the disease can cause anemia in affected people, which can lead to enlargement of the spleen or liver, according to Oladimeji A. Oki, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of family and social medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

"In fact, a ruptured spleen due to enlargement is a rare but dangerous risk associated with babesiosis," says Dr. Oki. "There can be severe disease, usually [flu-like symptoms] with more pronounced vomiting and diarrhea, where hospital admission and intravenous antibiotics need to be given."

Those who are immunocompromised, have other health conditions, and the elderly are at higher risk of developing more serious outcomes as a result of babesiosis.

How is Babesiosis Treated?

Luckily, babesiosis is generally treatable if properly diagnosed. A round of antibiotics will usually do the trick in curing the illness, and hospitalization is typically not required. If you don't have any symptoms or signs of babesiosis, you may not need to be treated at all. The CDC says the first step is to make sure you get the correct diagnosis. There is also no vaccine available to prevent the illness. If you suspect you may be sick from a tick bite, make sure to contact your health care provider.

How Can I Prevent My Child From Getting a Tick Bite?

If you find yourself in one of the endemic states, tick awareness is vital. Hiking or camping in a heavily wooded area? Might be best to wear long sleeves and pants tucked into socks. The idea is to expose as little skin as possible to prevent a tick from latching on.

"As with all diseases, prevention is the best approach. In this case, preventing exposure to ticks is key," Dr. Parker explains. "This can include completely avoiding tick habitats such as forested, grassy, and brushy areas; sticking to trails in tick environments; covering skin so that ticks cannot easily feed; and applying repellents that are recommended by the CDC (DEET or permethrin-based products)."

Daniel Parker, Ph.D.

"As with all diseases, prevention is the best approach. In this case, preventing exposure to ticks is key."

— Daniel Parker, Ph.D.

Along with those precautions, Dr. Parker also recommends checking your body, as well as your children's, for ticks often after being outside, particularly in tick-prone regions. "Remove ticks from clothing and remove from parts of the body using tweezers to gently squeeze the tick's mouth and pull straight out so that mouth parts do not become detached and lodged in the skin," he recommends.

Use discretion with removing ticks. It's important to do so correctly, as Dr. Parker said, to ensure no part of the tick is left behind. The CDC recommends using tweezers for accuracy, pulling upward with steady pressure, and disinfecting the area afterward with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.

Even if your outdoor adventure isn't in the woods of the northeast, the CDC and health professionals advise caution nonetheless. Not only has the illness been seen as far north as Canada, but tick safety in general, no matter what state you are in, is important, says Dr. Parker.

"Caution is warranted wherever ticks are present, as there are many other diseases that are spread by ticks as well," adds Dr. Parker.

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Sources
Parents 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. Trends in Reported Babesiosis Cases — United States, 2011–2019. CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2023.

  2. Ticks, Human Babesiosis and Climate Change. Pathogens. 2021.

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