Tick-borne illnesses can lead to severe complications if left untreated. Many of the illnesses caused by tick bites present themselves the same way in the early stages. Often, the symptoms after a bite appear flu-like, but some people can get infected with a tick-borne illness and be asymptomatic.
With a plethora of tick-borne illnesses out there in the world, no two are quite the same. Both typhus and Lyme disease are caused by tick bites, and both can be serious if undiagnosed in the early stages. But what is typhus, exactly? Is typhus a rickettsial infection? And is typhus the same as Lyme disease? Let’s investigate.
What is typhus?
Typhus is a rickettsial infection caused by bacteria that transfers through the saliva of an infected arthropod into the human bloodstream. When a bite occurs, the bacteria is then transmitted into the body of the human to continue multiplying in the cells, replacing healthy cells with new infected ones.
There is more than one type of typhus. Epidemic typhus is a type of louse-borne typhus that can be typically found in areas with a high population but low sanitation. It is more likely to be transferred through lice bites, but ticks can often be infected with epidemic typhus as well. Endemic typhus is a form of murine typhus that is generally carried by fleas, thus more likely to infect animals such as dogs, cats, and livestock. The most common animal infected with endemic typhus is the rat, and people who handle rats on a regular basis are likely to become infected that way over being bitten by a flea themselves. Scrub typhus is carried through mite larvae and is found mainly in parts of Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands.
All three types of typhus can be contracted by humans, but the most likely type to infect a human population is epidemic typhus, as it is more commonly found in ticks.
Is typhus contagious?
Although typhus isn’t contagious through skin-on-skin contact, it can be contracted through the bite of an infected arthropod. If a tick bites an animal or human that is infected and then bites another, the virus is then passed along.
These types of illnesses are passed from tick to human through bodily fluids such as saliva (passed through the saliva into the blood stream) and direct contact with the bloodstream via bite.
Typhus can also be contracted if a person encounters infected arthropods (e.g. through sleeping on a bed with lice). When the lice defecate, the infection can be found in their feces. Then, if a person comes in contact with them and becomes itchy and scratches the surface of their skin, the infection can be transferred from the lice feces into the small cuts that scratching can sometimes leave behind.
Is there a cure for typhus?
There is no cure for typhus, but it can be treated effectively through antibiotics, especially if caught in the early stages. Generally, doxycycline is the antibiotic of choice, but doctors may also opt for chloramphenicol and ciprofloxacin.
To diagnose which type of typhus is present, a doctor will have to do a series of tests, including monitoring symptoms and the history of a patient (whether they have traveled abroad, live in high-risk areas, present during an outbreak); a skin biopsy of the rash present; a blood test to look for any infection; and/or an immunofluorescence test (a test of the bloodstream using dye that will highlight and single out typhus antigens).
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness that can mimic typhus in many ways. Both appear to have flu-like symptoms as the first and foremost identifier after being bit by an infected tick; however, Lyme disease tends to take a longer time to spread throughout the body than typhus does.
Lyme disease appears as an autoimmune disease and weakens the immune system significantly while the person is infected. Lyme disease also comes with a list of long-term ailments, including post-Lyme disease syndrome (PLDS), which can affect the sufferer for the rest of their life.
Is typhus the same as Lyme disease?
Although both Lyme disease and typhus can be contracted by getting bitten by an infected tick, they are not the same disease. Typhus is caused by rickettsial bacteria, whereas Lyme disease is a spirochetal disease. Lyme disease symptoms present the same as typhus in the beginning stages, with flu-like symptoms and a general feeling of being unwell; but as the two diseases progress, they affect the system in different ways.
Lyme disease progresses in the same way an autoimmune disease would – attacking the organs throughout the body, including the brain and heart. Long-term Lyme disease infection can cause heart problems such as arrhythmia, cognitive issues that become chronic, and arthritis. Lyme disease can often take time to develop in the body, and progresses at a much slower rate than typhus.
Typhus tends to attack the whole body quickly, focusing on the brain and spinal cord. A tick infected with both typhus and Lyme disease can transfer typhus within hours of the initial bite. Generally, typhus doesn’t occur as a co-infection with Lyme disease because they are both harbored by different types of ticks.
The diagnosis and treatment of both Lyme disease and typhus also differ. An antibiotic that may work against Lyme disease may not work against typhus and vice versa. So although it’s hard to distinguish between the two in the early stages of the disease, there are differences that can help with diagnostics and treatment in the long run.
To protect oneself from both Lyme disease and typhus, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants while in wooded areas to help to prevent bites, and check yourself thoroughly following time spent outdoors in areas where the infection is present.