Man Caught Three Whole Diseases From a Single Tick Bite

Man Caught Three Whole Diseases From a Single Tick Bite
A deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), the most common vector of Lyme disease in the U.S. (Photo: Victoria Arocho, AP)

Doctors in Oregon have described what might be one of the unluckiest encounters between man and tick ever documented. They report treating a 70-year-old man who became sick with three entirely different infections after a single tick bite.

According to a recent case study, published last month in BMJ Case Reports, the man visited an emergency room with symptoms of fever, nausea, and a distinct swelling around his ankle along with leg pain. Tests showed that he had anemia (a low red blood cell count) and thrombocytopenia (a low platelet count), as well as acute kidney injury and possible liver damage.

The man told doctors that a month earlier he had noticed a bite on the same ankle — presumed to have been caused by an insect. The bite had appeared following a trip to the Northeastern U.S., leading doctors to suspect that it was actually caused by a disease-carrying tick (an eight-legged arachnid). When further blood tests arrived, though, even they were surprised by the results. The man not only tested positive for Borrelia burgdorferi, the cause of Lyme disease, but also the bacteria Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Babesia microti, the causes of anaplasmosis and babesiosis, respectively.

Lyme showing up at the same time as another tickborne infection is fairly common, since ticks are routinely chock full of germs. But “infection with three tickborne illnesses at one time is relatively rare,” the doctors wrote.

Lyme disease can cause many symptoms, including fever and nausea, while both anaplasmosis and babesiosis can cause anemia, thrombocytopenia, and organ damage. It’s possible, though unconfirmed, that having all three infections worsened the man’s condition, since even single co-infections with Lyme are associated with more severe illness.

Luckily, though, all three infections are treatable with antibiotics. After the man was given a three-dose regimen of antibiotics for his triple germ threat, his symptoms resolved.

While the man’s predicament may have been unusually rare, tickborne illness is unfortunately becoming a bigger and bigger threat every year in the U.S. Scientists have warned that tick populations are spreading wider and farther across the states, aided by the changing and warming climate. As a result, the Northeastern U.S. isn’t the only region now at major risk for Lyme and other tickborne infections, nor are the woods necessarily the only dangerous parts of the outdoors to avoid or at least practice good tick safety. Case in point, a recent study found that disease-carrying ticks are thriving in the brush-filled vegetation right next to beaches in California.