Feature Archive

Tick-Borne Dangers

Summer is the prime season for tick bites. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself.

WebMD Feature

June 19, 2000 -- The 22-year-old soldier wasn't worried. He had been bitten by a few ticks while out on military maneuvers, but that wasn't unusual for soldiers at the base in Tennessee. Even when he developed a fever, he wasn't alarmed.

But instead of getting better, his condition steadily worsened. "By the time they brought him to the emergency department [here], the oxygen levels in his blood were beginning to fall dangerously," says Greg S. Martin, MD, a physician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., who wrote a description of the case in the September 2, 1999 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. "This poor kid was in bad shape. And very, very scared."

The diagnosis was a tick-borne disease called ehrlichiosis. "We had him on three powerful antibiotics to treat the infection. And by all rights he should have recovered," says Martin. He didn't. Within hours the young man's lungs and liver began to fail. His blood clotted in his veins. Two days after he was admitted, he went into seizures and died.

Blood-Sucking Bugs

What makes ticks so dangerous? Their vampire-like eating habits. Most ticks feed on the blood of unwitting victims at least twice and in some cases up to four times during their lifecycles. If a tick happens to carry a virus, bacterium, or protozoan when it bites you, it can transmit the disease-causing organism.