Posted on: June 18, 2020 at 4:36 pm
Last updated: October 15, 2020 at 3:02 pm

Awareness of lyme disease, the debilitating illness spread by ticks, has increased significantly over the last few years. Public health departments have invested in several campaigns to educate the public on the dangers of tick bites, how to avoid them, how to look for them, and what to do if you get bit.

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Lyme disease is not the only illness spread by ticks. There is another tick-borne disease that is currently on the rise in North America, and the symptoms are very similar to that of COVID-19.

Anaplasmosis: A Tick-Borne Illness

Anaplasmosis is a disease caused by the bacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilum. It is primarily spread to people through tick bites from the blacklegged tick and western blacklegged tick and is most commonly reported in the Northeastern and upper Midwestern states [1]. They are also commonly referred to as deer ticks.

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Although Lyme disease is still the most common illness carried by ticks, there has recently been a surge in anaplasmosis cases in New York State and Maine [2,3].

In 2019, Maine had a record-high 685 confirmed cases, a 44 percent increase from the previous year. There are still many unknowns as to why this increase occurred, but experts have a few theories.

“It might be that there’s hot spots in certain geographical areas for ticks infected with anaplasmosis, and that those ticks may be more likely to be in areas with more human activity,” said Griffin Dill, integrated pest management specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension [4].

Dill also said that the wetter and more humid summer they had in 2019 most likely contributed to an overall increase in the tick population, since ticks thrive in humid conditions [4].

Read: Study Finds Vitamin D Is Linked To Low Virus Death Rate

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What are the Symptoms of Anaplasmosis?

The symptoms of anaplasmosis are surprisingly similar to the symptoms associated with COVID-19. Early signs and symptoms include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Severe headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea [1]

Those symptoms usually begin within one to five days after being bitten by an infected tick, however if the disease is left untreated it can result much more serious illness, with symptoms including:

  • Respiratory failure
  • Bleeding problems
  • Organ failure
  • Death [1]

Older adults and people with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of developing severe illness.

Unlike Lyme Disease, however, testing for anaplasmosis is relatively easy and can be treated with antibiotics to prevent death and severe illness. The most common antibiotic used to treat the disease is Doxycycline [1].

Read: A Deadly Mosquito-Borne Illness Is Brewing in the Northeast. Should you worry?

Anaplasmosis vs. Lyme Disease

Because both illnesses are spread to humans primarily through tick bites, they are typically found in the same geographic area. The specific cause of each disease, however, is quite different. 

As mentioned, anaplasmosis is caused by the bacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilum, which is an obligate intracellular bacterium. This means that it needs a host cell (like a human cell) in order to reproduce since it cannot reproduce on its own [5].

Lyme Disease, on the other hand, is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, an extracellular spirochetal bacterium, which means it can grow and reproduce freely [6,7].

Lyme Disease often produces its signature bulls-eye rash, called erythema migrans, however, anaplasmosis does not have this feature, and so must be diagnosed in a clinical setting [7].

Lyme Disease vs. COVID-19

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of its symptoms have been compared to the symptoms associated with Lyme Disease. This is because in each case, the symptoms are generally “non-specific”. These types of symptoms are seen with anaplasmosis as well.

“Lyme, like other tick-borne diseases, is associated with general flu-like symptoms, [such as] fever, head and body ache, and fatigue. These are also symptoms of COVID-19,” Jory Brinkerhoff, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at the University of Richmond [8].

The difference, he added, is that Lyme Disease is not likely to cause respiratory symptoms like those seen with COVID-19.

Additionally, the telltale bull’s-eye rash that is common with Lyme Disease can help doctors diagnose a patient properly. This rash, however, is not always present, and a patient may not be aware that they had been bitten by a tick [8].

How to Prevent Tick Bites

The best way to prevent Lyme Disease, Anaplasmosis, and any other tick-borne illnesses is to prevent tick bites altogether. Brinkerhoff suggests taking precautions any time you’re going outdoors in an area where ticks live.

He recommends wearing long pants and sleeves, but cautions that ticks are very good at finding gaps in clothing. For this reason, he encourages the use of repellents.

“Repellants generally work for reducing tick encounters, especially those that are applied to clothing rather than skin,” he said [8]. 

He also suggests showering and doing thorough body checks upon returning indoors every time you go out in an area where there is a known tick population [8].

Being in the midst of a pandemic, it’s important to understand that non-specific symptoms can have various causes and have overlap with COVID-19 symptoms. If you believe you’ve been bitten by a tick and or display symptoms of Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, or COVID-19, contact your local health authorities.

Keep Reading: 5 Ways to Make Sure You Don’t Get Lyme Disease This Summer

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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