CDC Issues Warning Over Deadly Tick-Borne Illness: What to Know

Hikers on a trail in the southwestern U.S.
If you go hiking, you can take steps to avoid being exposed to ticks. AMR Image/Getty Images
  • The CDC has published a warning related to a condition called Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
  • The condition, which is transferred to humans via specific tick breeds, has caused multiple hospitalizations and deaths. 
  • All of the cases reported stem from travel to areas of Mexico.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a warning due to the rise of a condition called Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The disease has been linked to five hospitalizations and three deaths since July. All of the cases originate from the Baja California region of Mexico, where it is endemic.

Dr. William Schaffner,a  professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said that the warning was a surprise to him. 

“I was stunned when I saw that report… from the CDC that they had five cases acquired in Mexico, seen in the United States, and three died. That’s an incredible fatality rate, which means that the infection wasn’t thought of right away,” Schaffner said.

How to spot Rocky Mountain spotted fever

Rocky Mountain spotted fever gets its name from a rash that can be associated with the condition. It’s a

The bacterial disease is transferred via ticks. It has been found not just in Rocky Mountain states but the Eastern, Cetneral and Western U.S., where it is transferred via the American dog tick. In the southwestern U.S. it is primarily transferred via the brown dog tick.

Early symptoms (first 1–4 days) of Rocky Moutain spotted fever include the following

In severe cases and late illness (day 5 or later), it can cause brain swelling, trouble breathing, necrosis, and damage to multiple organs.

People at highest risk for severe disease include children under age 10, those with a specific type of enzyme deficiency, and people who don’t get early diagnosis and treatment.

The CDC describes the pace of RMSF as “rapidly progressive” and Schaffner says that medical professionals need to be aware that a rash may not always be present.

“We have since come to learn that particularly early in the infection, and maybe never, a rash may not develop. In which case, we call those illnesses Rocky Mountain spotless fever,” Schaffner said. “So, you have to know that you can’t rely on the rash to trigger your thinking about the diagnosis.”

Dr. Shruti Gohil (MD, MPH), an assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, Irvine’s medical school, calls the disease “notorious” in her field and says there’s one particular age group that is at the most risk. 

“If you look at the really high-risk cases of people who actually go on to the die, it’s the younger ones, it’s children… Everybody’s at risk, sure, but children have a propensity for more severe consequences,” Gohil said.

The CDC highlights that those under 10 are five times more likely to die from RMSF. Of the five cases included in the warning, four patients were under the age of 18.

How to treat Rocky Mountain spotted fever

The disease can be treated with the common antibiotic doxycycline.

Since this condition can progress so quickly and even lead to death within days, Schaffner says medical practitioners need to be alert to the possibility of this infection so that they can get their patients antibiotics quickly.

“You have to initiate your treatment, before you have a diagnostic test,” Schaffner said.

The presence of the disease can be confirmed via a PCR and serologic tests, a rash biopsy, or through the testing of postmortem tissue. The standard treatment for RMSF is a course of doxycycline, a common antibiotic. This prescription applies to those of all ages, including those who are pregnant. 

Gohil says that she said the CDC warning will help alert physicians about the rise of this rare condition.

“I love that the CDC issued this with just a few cases. And those were in [cases of] a very specific travel history . The reason I love it is because, for rare diseases, If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you will miss it more,” Gohil said.

How to protect yourself

Experts say if you’re traveling to areas where the disease is endemic, you should be aware of the risks and take steps to avoid contact with ticks. You can avoid bushy, grassy areas where ticks are more common and treat your clothing with insect deterrents, according to the CDC. Additionally, after being in areas where ticks are common, you can do a tick check on your body to ensure you were not bitten.

If you do get bit by a tick, the CDC recommends using tweezers to pull out the tick.

  • Pull upward with steady, even pressure.
  • Don’t twist or jerk the tick.
  • After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
  • Do not crush a tick with your fingers.
  • To dispose of a live tick you can put it in alcohol, place in a sealed back, wrap in tape or flush it down the toilet.

While removing the tick you should have tissue on your hands so that you reduce the risk of getting infected while you are doing the removal. Preventative steps include wearing protective clothing, such as long pants and t-shirts; consistently checking yourself and your family members for ticks when you’re outside, and treating your dogs with an anti-tick product.

Given that the type of tick that transports RMSF is out of season in the United States, Gohil says that people traveling to endemic areas need to watch for symptoms and report them to their doctor, along with their travel history, should they appear once they return to the country. 

“I think the biggest takeaway is to really prevent as much as you can by wearing the right protective clothing, using insecticide if you’re going to travel into the endemic area. and keeping a high index of suspicion,” said Gohil.


The CDC has released a warning due to the rise of a condition called Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The disease has been linked to five hospitalizations and three deaths since July.

Early symptoms include fever, loss of appetite and stomach pain.

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