What Are The Signs & Symptoms Of Tularemia?

The great outdoors is often hailed as medicine. Research has shown that getting out in nature can have a beneficial impact on various aspects of both physical and mental health. In many cases, spending more time in wooded areas and among nature has no downside – but sometimes the critters that live in these kinds of habitats can pose a health risk to humans.

Wooded areas are home to all sorts of wildlife, such as deer, rabbits, and squirrels. While these animals typically shy away from humans and do not directly pose a threat, they also can carry insects such as ticks. Humans need to be wary of ticks because they can severely affect your health if you come into contact with one that harbors an infectious disease. One such tick-borne disease is tularemia. But what is tularemia, and how do you know if you’ve contracted it?

Read on to learn all you need to know about the signs and symptoms of tularemia.

What is tularemia?

Tularemia is a bacterial infection that can be passed on to humans through tick bites. It is also referred to as “rabbit fever” because rabbits and hares are major spreaders of the disease. When a tick latches onto an infected rabbit or hare and drinks its blood, it contracts the bacteria. If that same tick were to latch onto a human, it would transmit the bacteria, causing infection.

Image by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash: What are the symptoms of tularemia?

How do you catch tularemia?

While tick bites are one of the biggest causes of tularemia in humans, the bacteria can be transmitted in various ways. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tularemia can also be transmitted to humans through simple skin contact with infected animals, drinking contaminated water, inhaling aerosols or landscaping dust that contains the bacteria, and being exposed in a lab. Bioterrorism is also a possible way to be exposed to the infection, though it’s incredibly rare.

The ticks most notably responsible for the spread of tularemia are dog ticks, wood ticks, and lone star ticks. In the western area of the United States, deer flies are also on the list of possible spreaders. While skin-to-skin contact with an infected animal can also spread the infection, this method of transmission is most likely to occur in people who hunt or skin animals or other small game. Household pets, such as cats or hamsters, can contract the infection and spread it to humans; however, this is rare.

People can contract the bacteria during landscaping or farming activities if they run over an animal with machinery and release the bacteria into the air. In some rarer cases, people may contract the bacteria by eating an animal that is infected with the bacteria.

How common is tularemia from tick bites?

Even though there are many transmission methods, tularemia is most often spread through tick bites. This is because it’s much more common to encounter a tick while out in wooded areas than any of the other disease-spreading scenarios. While there is little research on the exact number of tularemia cases caused by tick bite, we know it’s the most common way humans contract the infection.

What are the signs and symptoms of tularemia?

The symptoms of tularemia can vary depending on the person. In some cases people will experience no symptoms, while others can have severe illness that causes life-threatening complications. When symptoms do develop, they start the same as the flu and can include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headaches
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Appetite loss
  • Malaise

How a person contracts the infection will also affect how symptoms develop. If a person is bitten by a tick or handles a sick animal and the bacteria enters their body through the skin, they will generally experience the following:

  • Rashes or ulcers on the skin
  • Swollen and/or painful lymph nodes

Other modes of transmission that result in breathing in the bacteria can lead to symptoms that affect the respiratory system, such as:

  • Pneumonia
  • Fluid in the lungs
  • Lung abscesses

People who consume the meat of an infected animal may develop a sore throat as well as symptoms that affect the gastrointestinal tract, such as:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding

Since the infection can affect all organ systems, widespread inflammation can also occur. The brain, spinal cord, eyes, heart, and liver can all become inflamed because of tularemia. In some cases, sepsis and bone infections also occur.

Image by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash: How sick can you get if you have tularemia?

How long does it take to show symptoms of tularemia?

After becoming infected with the bacteria that causes tularemia, people typically develop symptoms within three to five days. That said, the incubation period can last much longer, so it can take up to two weeks before symptoms start to show in some individuals.

How long do tularemia symptoms last?

Symptoms of tularemia tend to stick around until a person seeks treatment. Antibiotics are the drug of choice for tularemia, and after therapy begins, symptoms may disappear in roughly two to three weeks. However, in some cases, people may experience symptoms for a month or more after treatment, and potential permanent skin damage from rashes can occur. 

Tularemia can be a severe and life-threatening disease for some, while others may not be affected at all. To avoid contracting this illness, avoid handling roadkill or other animal carcasses, and do your best to ensure that you are safe from tick bites while in wooded areas.

Featured image by Victor Grabarczyk on Unsplash

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