by Katherine Brind’Amour, PhD
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is one of the most deadly infections in the world. (1) The good news is that medical treatment can help you recover, if you get the treatment early. Natural remedies can also help you during your healing after medical treatment.
It is very important to know at least the basics about Rocky Mountain spotted fever in order to protect yourself, so here are some useful tips.
What Is Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a dangerous infection that occurs when you are bitten by a tick or exposed to material from a crushed tick. The tick carries a certain type of bacteria (Rickettsia rickettsii) that moves through a person’s skin into their bloodstream. The infection can be fatal without early treatment.
Although it was first identified in the Rocky Mountain states, most cases are now found in the southeastern United States. Rocky Mountain spotted fever is also found in Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America. (2) People die without treatment — early treatment is a must. You must see a doctor as soon as you can to get the medication you need.
See the Precautions section below to learn about the right way to pull off a tick. If you can, kill the tick safely (see the section on Prevention) and bring it with you to the doctor. (3)
Three types of ticks carry the Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria, which cause the disease:
- American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
- Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni)
- Brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus)
Note: Rocky Mountain spotted fever is not the same as Lyme disease or Powassan virus disease.
- Lyme disease is caused by different bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) found in another type of tick, the deer tick (also called the black-legged tick). Lyme disease may cause a rash that looks like a target with a series of darker and lighter circles inside each other on the skin as well as other symptoms. It is most common in the Northeast and Upper Midwest but can be found other places. (4)
- Another tick-borne disease is Powassan virus disease. While some people do not develop symptoms, some get fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, loss of coordination and other symptoms. About 10 percent of Powassan virus victims die. Most cases are found in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions. (5)
Signs & Symptoms
See a doctor any time you feel sick or get a rash after a tick bite, or if you start to have the symptoms below and think you may have had a tick bite.
Many of the symptoms for the disease are shared with other diseases. To find out if you have Rocky Mountain spotted fever, your doctor can order a blood test. It is important to start treatment right away, however, since test results can take weeks to complete. (6)
Most deaths occur in the first eight days of illness. Don’t wait for test results — get the medication you need. If you have symptoms, ignore a negative early test result and get treatment. The test can sometimes be wrong early in the disease course. (7)
If you don’t begin receiving treatment within the first five days after symptoms appear, you may need intravenous (IV, or through a needle in your arm) antibiotics in the hospital. For severe symptoms, you may have to stay in the hospital for care and monitoring.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever symptoms may appear soon after the tick bite, but not always. The types of symptoms you may have may be different from those of other people. Sometimes it is hard for doctors to make a diagnosis after a tick bite.
If you have been in wooded, grassy or high-brush areas, you should go to the doctor if you start to have these symptoms. The early symptoms often are: (8)
- High fever, which can last two to three weeks
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe headache
- Muscle aches
- Abdominal pain
- Chills or suddenly feeling very cold
- Feeling confused or having difficulty thinking clearly
- A rash that starts flat on your skin and doesn’t itch
If you don’t have the rash, then doctors may find it harder to make the Rocky Mountain spotted fever diagnosis.
The rash usually appears three to five days after the very first signs and symptoms appear. (2). The rash may first appear on your wrists and ankles and then move down into your palms and soles of your feet. It may also extend up your arms and legs and into your middle (torso) area. It starts flat on your skin but may become raised. (9)
The Rocky Mountain spotted fever rash often looks like small rounded shapes in the middle of skin that is turning a darker color. These spots can be reddish or purple in color because of bleeding inside of the skin. Some rashes may look like pinpoint dots and others may look like red splotches. (10) Children generally have a fever and rash by the time they are hospitalized. (11)
If the infection becomes severe, the skin can turn very dark, as an infected person develops gangrene. (7) Gangrene is tissue death, which occurs when there is not enough blood supply to keep skin tissue healthy.
Symptoms that may come early or later include: (10)
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever rash
- A hacking, dry cough (sometimes)
- Mental disability
- Nerve damage
People with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can suffer long-term effects from damage done during the illness. Once it is treated, however the disease is not one that comes and goes, and no evidence shows that it is chronic (lasting). (7)
These problems can result from the disease: (8, 9)
- Amputation of fingers, toes, arms and/or legs, because of gangrene
- Hearing loss
- Permanent mental disability
- Paralysis on one side
- Feeling restless and unable to sleep
- Coma, if the brain blood vessels are affected
- Inflammation of the airways (pneumonitis) and pneumonia
- Heart and kidney damage
- Severe low blood pressure and death (uncommon, but this may happen when the infection is severe)
Causes & Risk Factors
People almost always get Rocky Mountain spotted fever from:
- A tick bite
- A tick they have crushed or handled, which is less common
Removing a tick from a person or a dog and crushing it with bare hands is a risk. Don’t handle a tick with your bare hands or fingers. (12) Use a tissue or latex gloves whenever possible.
- North Carolina
- Note: In Arizona, the brown dog tick bite causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Cases mainly occur in areas where dogs run loose.
Other risk factors include: (2, 14)
- Spending time in grassy, high brush or wooded areas
- The time of year — spring and early summer are more likely times to get a tick bite
- Having a dog or spending time with dogs
- Being male
- Being Native American
- Ages under 10 or over 40 years old
- Having a compromised immune system
The only effective treatment for the grave illness of Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a course of an antibiotic. An antibiotic drug called doxycycline is the most common choice for treating the disease.
If you are pregnant, your doctor may recommend that you take chloramphenicol instead. Regular antibiotics used for the infection are not effective for Rocky Mountain spotted fever during pregnancy. The disease can be especially difficult to diagnose if you are pregnant and have symptoms like vomiting or muscular aches, however. (15)
These antibiotics are the safest and most effective ways to treat Rocky Mountain spotted fever. It’s important to start the medicine as soon as possible, preferably in the first five days after symptoms start.
6 Natural Ways to Manage Symptoms
Several natural remedies exist to help you manage the symptoms you might have during Rocky Mountain spotted fever. As always, check with a health care professional before beginning any natural therapies, as herbs, supplements and other remedies can interact with medications and impact symptoms (in both good and bad ways).
With natural remedies, you can:
- Lower your fever
- Soothe muscle aches
- Soothe a headache
- Get rid of chills
- Relieve nausea or vomiting
- Beat restlessness or insomnia
Lower your fever
If you get a fever, consider following Dr. Axe’s tips to ease your symptoms:
- Drink lots of fluids throughout the day. Avoid sports drinks and sodas with lots of sugar.
- Dilute juices for younger children, so there is less glucose (a form of sugar that bacteria live on).
- Get rest so your body can make more white blood cells, which fight infection.
- Eat mild, bland foods. Doing this will help you especially if you are nauseous or vomiting. Some examples of bland food would be gluten-free oatmeal, bone broth and fruit juice popsicles.
- Consume probiotic products. Kombucha and miso soup may help when you have a tick fever.
- Take a lukewarm bath.
- Don’t overdress, and don’t huddle under too many blankets if you have tick fever. Remember that most people feel better when a fever drops by even one degree.
Soothe muscle aches
There are several things you can do to soothe muscle aches:
- Take a supplement, if your doctor says it’s OK to combine with your antibiotics and any other medications or supplements you may already be taking. You may wish to consider:
- Magnesium (250 milligrams twice daily) can help with muscle relaxation.
- Potassium (300 milligrams daily) because a deficiency can lead to cramping.
- Green superfood powder. Include chlorella and spirulina to provide minerals for muscle relaxation.
- Calcium (500 milligrams twice daily) is required for muscle relaxation.
- MSM (500 milligrams three times daily) has anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties.
- Warm up before you stretch or move much.
- Try an essential oil muscle rub. Mix peppermint oil, cypress oil and coconut oil together and rub them on the sore muscles. However, take care if you have sensitive rash areas or broken skin, since some people may experience irritation from some essential oils.
Soothe a headache
There are many natural remedies that may help you relieve a headache. You can consider these tips to see what might work for you:
- Magnesium is an essential mineral that may prevent the wave of brain signaling that produces sensory changes common during a headache. Dietary sources include beans, whole grains, seeds, nuts and leafy vegetables, including broccoli.
- Peppermint and lavender essential oils may have calming and slight numbing effects that can sometimes help relieve headache pressure.
- B-complex vitamins may help. They are involved in forming neurotransmitters in the brain. Some of the most common B vitamins are thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, biotin and pantothenic acid.
- Drink a lot of water, and eat fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, celery, radishes, green peppers, cabbage, spinach, eggplant, watermelon, cantaloupe and oranges.
- Massage your toes and feet. Reflexology is a practice that suggests there are some headache relieving points on your feet (and one on the hand) that, when stimulated, may help bring headache relief.
Get rid of chills
If you are having a hard time getting your body temperature to stay stable:
- Try warm chicken soup or a bone broth to warm and relax you.
- Try a warm bath. Warm baths can reduce cold and flu symptoms in adults. Adding Epsom salt or baking soda may help you relax. Adding a few drops of essential oils, like juniper or rosemary, may also help. (16)
Relieve nausea or vomiting
There are many natural remedies that can help relieve nausea or vomiting, including these suggested by Dr. Axe:
- Ginger is used as a remedy for nausea in several traditional systems of medicine, and clinical studies have backed that up. Ginger essential oil can be inhaled or you can drink ginger tea throughout the day (17)
- Vitamin B6
- Peppermint essential oil, which is recommended for its anti-vomiting and antispasmodic effects on the stomach lining and the colon
- Chamomile tea has been used to treat various gastrointestinal problems, including nausea, vomiting, indigestion and diarrhea
- Lemon is known as a natural remedy for nausea. Simply cut open a lemon and inhale every time you feel a wave of nausea. You can also bite a piece of fresh lemon, use lemon oil to inhale or drink lemon water
- Get some fresh air; open a window and take a walk outside
- Apply a cool compress to the forehead or back of the neck
- Sit up for about an hour after eating to relieve any pressure on the stomach
- Consider alternative therapies such as meditation and acupuncture
- Eat small meals
- Avoid high-fat foods that slow down digestion
Beat restlessness or insomnia
Rocky Mountain spotted fever can leave you with restless feelings and insomnia, the inability to sleep well. Here are some tips that should leave you calmer and better able to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- A warm room makes you sweaty, while super-cold temps leave you shivering. Opt for a range between 60 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit each night.
- Dim the lights at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Turn on a fan, white noise machine, calming instrumental music or use earplugs to adjust to a personally effective environment.
- Add essential oils or aromatherapy to your nightly routine as a therapeutic way to encourage your body to wind down. Lavendar oil and Roman chamomile oil may be calming choices.
- Avoid eating sugary sweets, chocolate, simple carbs, juice or high-glycemic fruit just before bed. Instead, combine melatonin-forming foods and high-protein snacks so you don’t wake up in the middle of the night. Some good bedtime snacks are:
- Half a banana with almond butter on a slice of whole grain bread
- Hummus with carrots, cucumber or celery
- Watch TV or evening programs in the living room, and keep your bedroom clear of electronic devices.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule as much as possible, every single day.
- Try not to have caffeinated food or drinks after noon each day.
- Try shifting your workout schedule to the mornings. Research shows that exercise is known to effectively decrease sleep problems.
- Get sunshine during the day.
One way to possibly prevent Rocky Mountain spotted fever is to pull off a tick as soon as you find it on your body. Kill the tick, keep it and bring it to your doctor if you can.
However, the tick may still have been able to infect you, so see a doctor if you have any symptoms.
To remove a tick safely: (2, 12)
- Do not crush a tick with your bare fingers; wear rubber gloves
- Use tweezers to grasp the tick near its head or mouth and remove it carefully
- Do not twist as you pull the tick out. Pull it straight out of your skin. If any part of the tick is still in your skin, remove it
- Treat the tick as if it’s contaminated; soak it in rubbing alcohol
- Clean the bite area with an antiseptic, like alcohol or an iodine scrub, or use soap and water
- Wash your hands thoroughly
Tips to prevent the disease by preventing a tick bite in the first place include: (18)
- Use insect repellent.
- Use insecticide on clothing and gear
- Treat pets for ticks, especially dogs. Ask a vet about the most safe, effective prevention products
- If you hike, don’t wander off trail into tall grass, brush or woods. Stay in the middle of the trail
- Shower quickly (within two hours) after you come indoors
- Check daily for ticks on humans and pets if you go outdoors:
Key Points About Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a deadly disease caused by a tick bite from an infected tick. Many people die within eight days of a tick bite unless they get medical help.
- An early course of the antibiotic doxycycline is the best treatment.
- Get treated soon as possible if you think you may have a tick bite with any symptoms. Early symptoms are fever, headache and a rash.
- Remove and kill ticks safely on yourself and pets.
6 Natural Ways to Help Relieve Symptoms after Antibiotic Treatment
- Lower your fever
- Soothe muscle aches
- Soothe a headache
- Get rid of chills
- Relieve nausea or vomiting
- Beat restlessness or insomnia
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