What is Relapsing Fever?

Relapsing fever is an illness caused by bacteria. This infection is marked by a reoccurring fever accompanied by symptoms that resemble influenza. A person typically contracts relapse fever after being bitten by an infected tick or body louse. The likely source of transmission depends on where the affected person lives or has recently traveled.

When a person develops relapsing fever, his first symptom is usually an elevated temperature that starts within two weeks of infection with the responsible bacteria. There are two types of relapsing fever. One is called tick-borne relapsing fever (TBRF) and is marked by many episodes of fever. With this form of the disease, each episode may last for three days or less. The episodes of fever may end eventually, leaving the patient with a normal temperature for about two weeks before fever returns once more.

The other type of relapsing fever is called louse-borne relapsing fever (LBRF). With this form of the infection, a patient’s fever may last for three to six days. Later, the patient may develop another episode of fever, but this one is typically milder than the first.

The reason for the differences between TBRF and LBRF is that they are transmitted by different organisms, and the bacteria species involved differ as well. A person in the United States would likely develop TBRF, which is caused by a bite from the Ornithodoros tick. The bacteria involved are from the Borrelia duttoni, hermsii, and parkeri species. Besides the United States, this form of the infection is found in in Africa, Asia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Canada.

Though TBRF is found in Africa and Asia, LBRF is more common in both places. LBRF is also found in both Central and South America. Transmitted by body lice, it is caused by the Borrelia recurrentis species of bacteria.

Along with fever, a person with either form of this infection may have head and body aches, chills, and periods of sweating. Some also develop nausea, vomiting, cough, and eye and neck pain. People with relapsing fever may also experience a crisis stage, which proves fatal for some people, at the end of a fever episode. At this time, a person may experience chills, body shaking, and excess sweating. He may also develop lowered body temperatures and blood pressure during this crisis period.

Some people develop serious effects following multiple episodes of fever and after the early stages of symptoms have passed. For example, a patient may begin to have seizures or fall into a coma. The bacteria may attack the vital organs, such as the heart and the liver. An individual may even develop pneumonia as a result of this infection.

Relapsing fever is typically treated with antibiotics. Early treatment usually provides the best hope for survival. Individuals who’ve developed serious complications, such as pneumonia and hepatitis, may be more likely to die from the infection than others.


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