Whenever spring is just around the corner, you can be sure tick season is almost ready to begin, too. While many people know that ticks harbor diseases, not everyone may be aware of the severity of these infections until they contract one. The initial symptoms associated with tick-borne diseases are typically mild. Because of this, many people go untested after contracting a disease. But when treatment is not sought quickly, tick-borne diseases can spread through the entire body and cause severe health issues. Tick-borne conditions can be just as harmful to the brain as any other organ in the body – but how do tick-borne diseases affect the brain, exactly? Let’s find out.
What are tick-borne infections?
Tick-borne diseases are contracted when an infected tick feeds on a host. Ticks drink the blood of wood animals, such as deer, but they can also latch onto humans. If a tick manages to attach itself to a human, the bacteria, viruses, or protozoan pathogens within its body can be transferred to its host.
There are many tick-borne diseases, including:
- Lyme disease
- Borrelia mayonii
- Borrelia miyamotoi
- Bourbon virus
- Colorado tick fever
- Heartland virus
- Powassan disease
- Rickettsia parkeri rickettsiosis
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF)
- Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI)
- Tickborne relapsing fever (TBRF)
- 364D rickettsiosis
All these diseases can cause mild or severe symptoms in people who contract them.
Each tick tends to carry a specific type of disease; sometimes, ticks may harbor more than one illness-causing pathogen at a time.
What tick-borne diseases affect the brain?
Several tick-borne diseases have been shown to infiltrate the blood–brain barrier and cause neurological symptoms. For example, Lyme disease, caused by bacteria, can lead to neurological symptoms, including:
- Facial palsy
- Vision changes
- Stiff neck
- Severe headaches
Many other tick-borne diseases can cause issues with the brain, but one of the most severe neurological consequences of a viral tick-borne infection is encephalitis.
What is tick-borne encephalitis?
Tick-borne encephalitis, otherwise known simply as TBE, is a viral infection transferred to humans from ticks. It is most likely to be found in Europe and Asia. However, ticks infected with viral infections that lead to encephalitis can be found anywhere in the world.
When a person gets bitten by an infected tick, the virus makes its way into the body and impacts the health of the central nervous system by causing the brain to swell. This system controls brain functions, such as:
- Touch and feeling
What are the neurological symptoms of tick-borne encephalitis?
TBE comes with various detrimental symptoms after the initial signs of infection pass. While not everyone will develop mild symptoms at the beginning of the infection, some will. These symptoms can include:
Within a few days, the infection begins to harm the brain, and patients can develop other possible symptoms of TBE, including:
- Brain swelling
- Spinal cord swelling
- Sensory disturbances
- Memory loss
- Reduced cognition
- Difficulty speaking
- Loss of coordination
- Weakness in the arms and legs
These symptoms can be treated. However, up to 30% of people with TBE will suffer from long-term consequences.
What are the long-term effects of tick-borne encephalitis?
For those who do not recover fully from TBE, long-term health complications can arise and cause decreased quality of life or even death. Some of the possible long-term issues people with TBE face include:
- A reduction in overall motivation
- A decline in basic motor skills
- Impaired memory
- Neck pain
- Shoulder pain
- Hoarseness in the voice
- An increase in saliva
- Respiratory failure
- Weakness in muscles used to speak, eat, or breathe
- Muscle atrophy
- Changes in gait
In some cases, chronic TBE or long-term TBE can lead to symptoms that closely resemble another type of disease that affects neurological health: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a severe and life-threatening disease with no cure, so when TBE presents with the same symptoms, it can mean that a person is dealing with a dire infection.
How is tick-borne encephalitis treated?
Currently, a vaccine is available to help prevent TBE in people who spend time in tick-populated areas. However, vaccinations only protect people from the infection for up to three years. To treat an already-existent case of TBE, health care providers will have to utilize supportive care techniques. There is no cure, nor is there any single treatment available for the viral disease.
In most cases, people with TBE will be monitored for signs of worsening disease while being treated with pain medications for headaches and antiemetic therapy to help soothe other symptoms. The goal is to watch for worsening symptoms while allowing the body to heal and the brain inflammation to go down. Treatment and monitoring of signs for TBE can lead to recovery, but it can take anywhere from a few weeks to months to get better. In the worst cases, people will be subject to permanent brain damage or death.
Tick-borne encephalitis is a severe health complication of a viral infection from a tick. The best thing you can do to avoid any tick-borne infections that affect the brain is to get vaccinated if you will be in a high-risk area and ensure that you check your body for ticks whenever you spend time in wooded areas.