A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Tick, tick, tick – and more ticks

Person walking outside - identifying tick-borne diseases

New DNA-based testing methods can help to quickly identify tick-borne diseases.

As the upper Midwest’s population of deer ticks expands and spreads, Marshfield Clinic researchers continue to look for ways to more quickly identify tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis.

They’ve turned to molecular tests that focus on DNA, the genetic code found in all living things. But in this case, it’s not human DNA, as you might expect, but rather the DNA of the infecting organisms.

DNA tests offer advantages

“Our new DNA-based testing methods are far more accurate and faster than older blood tests,” said Dr. Thomas Fritsche, a Marshfield Clinic pathologist and head of the Clinical Microbiology Section. “Patients can get the appropriate treatment sooner and get well faster.”

“While we still use a traditional antibody test for Lyme disease, we now also offer DNA-based tests for anaplasmosis and babesiosis,” said Dr. Timothy Uphoff, head of the Molecular Pathology Section of Marshfield Labs. “These tests are more sensitive, rapid and offer a definitive answer for either the presence or absence of the infecting organism.”

Dr. Anna Schotthoefer and other members of the Integrated Research and Development Laboratory at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute (MCRI) have collaborated with Fritsche and Uphoff on several tick-borne disease studies that have resulted in new test development.

“We couldn’t have developed our diagnostic tests for patient use without MCRI,” said Fritsche, who has collaborated with Schotthoefer and Uphoff on several published papers and national meeting presentations. This information has furthered understanding of these diseases.

Difficult to find and treat

printable tick card fits perfectly in your wallet

Download the printable tick card.

Work is still being done to develop a reliable diagnostic test that detects the DNA of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Lyme disease is the most common and well-known of the three tick-borne diseases in Wisconsin, but it is often difficult to identify because symptoms vary and don’t appear until three to 10 days after a tick bite. It sometimes starts with a bulls-eye or dusky red, round rash followed by flu-like illness. The disease commonly progresses to severe fatigue, joint pain and swelling, among other symptoms, if not treated early. Often the patient has no memory of having been bitten by a tick.

According to Schotthoefer, the tiny deer tick – much smaller and harder to find than a wood tick – has spread across most of Wisconsin, perhaps because of milder winters in recent years.

She urges anyone working or playing in the woods to take the usual precautions of keeping skin covered with long pants, socks and long sleeves and perform thorough checks for attached ticks after spending time outdoors.

Use a repellent, preferably containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus, to repel ticks and mosquitoes.

Care My Way® may be able to help prevent Lyme disease if you do have a tick bite. Download the app to get started.

You may be able to help

If you are diagnosed with early stages of Lyme disease and live in the Midwest, you may be able to participate in research at MCRI to help develop better tests and treatment for Lyme disease. For more information, contact Lisa Larson, MCRI clinical research coordinator, at 715-389-5738.

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