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Relapsing Fever

(Tick Fever; Recurrent Fever; Famine Fever)

By

Larry M. Bush

, MD, FACP, Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, Florida Atlantic University

Last full review/revision Jul 2019| Content last modified Jul 2019
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Relapsing fever is an infection caused by certain Borrelia species, which are spiral-shaped bacteria called spirochetes (see figure How Bacteria Shape Up).

  • People are infected when they are bitten by an infected tick or come in contact with an infected louse.

  • People have sudden chills followed by a high fever, severe headache, vomiting, muscle and joint pain, and sometimes a rash.

  • Symptoms disappear, then return (relapse) several times.

  • Identifying the bacteria in a sample of blood confirms the diagnosis.

  • Antibiotics are usually effective.

(See also Overview of Bacteria.)

Several species of Borrelia bacteria cause relapsing fever. A different species of Borrelia causes Lyme disease.

Tick-borne relapsing fever is transmitted by several species of soft ticks. A tick becomes infected when it feeds on rodents (such as chipmunks and squirrels) that carry a species of Borrelia bacteria. The tick spreads the bacteria to a person when it bites.

This fever occurs in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. In the United States, the disease occurs mainly in the Western states, particularly between May and September. People who sleep in a rodent-infested cabin in the mountains are more likely to be bitten by infected ticks. However, because the ticks feed at night and do not remain attached for very long, people often do not recall a tick bite. People who explore caves (spelunking) are also at risk of infection.

Did You Know...

Soft ticks differ from hard ticks (such as the dog tick and the deer tick) in the following ways:

  • Soft ticks remain attached for a short time, usually less than half an hour.

  • Soft ticks do not wait for their prey in tall grass or brush. Instead, they live in rodent burrows, feeding as needed on the rodent as it sleeps.

Louse-borne relapsing fever is transmitted by infected body lice. A louse becomes infected when it feeds on a human host who is infected with a species of Borrelia. The louse spreads the bacteria to another person when it is crushed. The Borrelia bacteria are then released on to the person's skin. Once released, the bacteria can enter the person's body, usually through a bite or broken skin. Lice that have not been crushed do not transmit the infection.

This fever is rare in the United States and occurs mainly in the highlands of Central and East Africa and the Andes of South America. Louse-borne relapsing fever has also occurred in Europe in refugees from Africa. This fever tends to occur in epidemics, particularly in regions affected by war, and in refugee camps. The louse infestation is usually obvious.

Pregnant women with relapsing fever can pass on Borrelia to their unborn child or may miscarry. Although rare, Borrelia can also been transmitted during a blood transfusion.

Symptoms

People with relapsing fever have sudden chills followed by a high fever, severe headache, vomiting, and muscle and joint pain. A thick, black, crusty scab (eschar) may form at the site of the tick bite. Some people have a reddish rash on the trunk and limbs and red eyes. Some people become delirious.

After several days, fever stops suddenly, and people feel better. However, the fever and usually the other symptoms return and go away (relapse) at about 1-week intervals for up to 30 episodes. The episodes become progressively less severe, and people eventually recover as they develop immunity to the disease.

Later in the illness, other symptoms may develop. They include jaundice (a yellowish discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes), an enlarged liver and spleen, inflammation of heart tissue (myocarditis), and heart failure. These symptoms are more common among people with louse-borne relapsing fever.

The eyes, brain, and spinal cord may be infected. For example, meningitis may develop. These problems are more common among people with tick-borne relapsing fever.

Diagnosis

  • Examination of a blood sample

Doctors suspect relapsing fever if people have recurring fevers, especially if they report spending the night in a cave or a mountain cabin.

To diagnose relapsing fever, doctors take a sample of blood and examine it under a microscope to look for Borrelia bacteria. Measuring antibodies against the Borrelia bacteria that cause relapsing fever may help. Doctors measure them soon after the infection is diagnosed and again weeks after people have recovered.

Prognosis

Most people recover, but some die. Death is more likely in the very young, pregnant women, older people, people who are undernourished or debilitated, and those who are infected during an epidemic of louse-borne relapsing fever.

For louse-borne relapsing fever, death occurs in 10 to 40% of untreated people and in 2 to 5% of treated people.

For tick-borne relapsing fever, the prognosis is better. Death occurs in less than 10% of untreated people and in less than 2% of treated people.

Treatment

  • Antibiotics

Antibiotics such as tetracycline, doxycycline, or erythromycin are usually effective.

Within 2 hours after the first dose of the antibiotic, an uncomfortable reaction called Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction may occur, causing sweating, shaking chills, fever, and a fall in blood pressure. To reduce the severity of this reaction, doctors may give people acetaminophen before and after the first dose of the antibiotic. This reaction is not an allergic reaction to the antibiotic.

If people are dehydrated or have electrolyte imbalances because of vomiting, they are given fluids intravenously. Acetaminophen may relieve headaches, and prochlorperazine can relieve nausea and vomiting.

More Information

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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