Baylor College of Medicine

Baylor College of Medicine infectious diseases expert Dr. Laila Woc-Colburn tells you what you need to know this flea and tick season.

What you need to know about tick-borne relapsing fever

Dipali Pathak


Houston, TX -

While tick-borne relapsing fever previously has been thought to be a threat mainly to outdoor enthusiasts, a new study by researchers at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine found that the infection is emerging in metropolitan regions of Texas. Here’s what you need to know about the infection.


What is it?


Tick-borne relapsing fever is an infection caused by the bite of a tick and has symptoms such as recurring high fevers, rigors, nausea and vomiting. People usually are exposed when they are hiking or camping. However, researchers at Baylor have found that these ticks also are present in cities in Texas, including Austin, San Antonio and Dallas.

A new study published recently in Emerging Infectious Diseases reported a case of tick-borne relapsing fever in an Austin resident, and researchers believe the tick exposure took place in a neighborhood near an urban park where the researchers collected infected ticks.

“We evaluated a patient to support the diagnosis of relapsing fever and also collected infected ticks from a public park in the city,” said Dr. Job Lopez, assistant professor of pediatrics in the section of tropical medicine at Baylor. “We determined the species causing infection and collected ticks from a public park in close proximity to the suspected exposure site. We confirmed that the ticks were infected.”


How can you prevent it?


While the infection can be treated by antibiotics, the long-term impact of being infected is not known. This is why prevention is key.

Dr. Laila Woc-Colburn, associate professor of infectious diseases and director of medical education at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor, said to follow these steps when going for a hike or walk in areas where fleas and ticks can be found:

  • Wear insect repellant with DEET or permethrin
  • Wear high socks and long pants
  • When you return, do a tick check for yourself and both a flea and tick check for pets

It’s important to use flea and tick medication for pets, Woc-Colburn said, and if pets have fever or are acting abnormally, see the veterinarian right away.

She also said to be sure to remove the tick appropriately. Ticks have two parts – the head and the body. If you pull the tick off with your fingers, you will pull the abdomen off, but not the head. Instead, use tweezers to grab the tick below the head and pull up, or perpendicular to the body. Once the tick is removed, look at it carefully under a magnifying glass to be sure all parts of the tick have been removed. Give pets a flea bath to remove fleas.


What are the symptoms?


Look for symptoms such as high fever, rash and a headache that does not go away with pain relievers, Woc-Colburn said. If you experience these symptoms a few days after removing a tick, call your primary care physician. Physicians will look for low white blood cell count, low platelet count and impaired liver function tests.

Lopez’s study was supported by funds from the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

Others who took part in the study include Jack D. Bissett Suzanne Ledet from Seton Medical Center in Austin; Aparna Krishnavajhala and Brittany A. Armstrong from Baylor; Anna Klioueva from Austin Public Health; and Christopher Sexton, Adam Replogle and Martin E. Schriefer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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