St. Luke's Hospital
Located in Chesterfield, MO
Main Number: 314-434-1500
Emergency Dept: 314-205-6990 Patient Billing: 888-924-9200
Find a Physician Payment Options Locations & Directions
Follow us on: facebook twitter Mobile Email Page Email Page Print Page Print Page Increase Font Size Decrease Font Size Font Size
Meet the Doctor
Spirit of Women
Community Health Needs Assessment
Home > Health Information

Multimedia Encyclopedia


    Relapsing fever

    Tick-borne relapsing fever, Louse-borne relapsing fever

    Relapsing fever is an infection transmitted by a louse or tick. It is characterized by repeated episodes of fever.


    Relapsing fever is an infection caused by several species of bacteria in the Borrelia family.

    There are two major forms of relapsing fever:

    • Tick-borne relapsing fever (TBRF) is transmitted by the Ornithodoros tick and occurs in Africa, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Asia, and certain areas in the western United States and Canada. The bacteria species associated with TBRF are Borrelia duttoni, Borrelia hermsii, and Borrelia parkerii.
    • Louse-borne relapsing fever (LBRF) is transmitted by body lice and is most common in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. The bacteria species associated with LBRF is Borrelia recurrentis.

    Sudden fever occurs within 2 weeks of infection. In LBRF, the fever usually lasts 3-6 days and is usually followed by a single, milder episode. In TRBF, multiple episodes of fever occur and each may last up to 3 days. Individuals may be free of fever for up to 2 weeks before it returns.

    In both forms, the fever episode may end in "crisis." This consists of shaking chills, followed by intense sweating, falling body temperature, and low blood pressure. This stage may result in death in up to 10% of people.

    After several cycles of fever, some people candevelop dramatic central nervous system signs such as seizures, stupor, and coma. The Borrelia organismcan also invade heart and liver tissues, causing inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) and liver (hepatitis). Bleeding throughout the bodyand pneumonia are other complications.

    In the United States, TBRFoften occurs west of the Mississippi River, particularly in the mountainous West and the high deserts and plains of the Southwest. In the mountains of California, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, andWashington, infections are usually caused by Borrelia hermsii and are often acquired in cabins in forests. It is possible that the risk now extends into the southeastern United States.

    LBRF is mainly a disease of the developing world. It is currently seen in Ethiopia and Sudan. Famine, war, and the movement and groups of refugees often result in epidemics of LBRF.


    • Bleeding
    • Coma
    • Headache
    • Joint aches (arthralgia), muscle aches (myalgia)
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Sagging of one side of the face (facial droop)
    • Stiff neck
    • Sudden onset of high fever, shaking chills, seizure
    • Vomiting
    • Weakness, unsteady while walking

    Exams and Tests

    Relapsing fever should be suspected if someone coming from a high-risk area has repeated episodes of fever. This is particularly true if the fever is followed by a "crisis" stage, and if the person may have been exposed to lice or soft-bodied ticks.

    Tests that may be done include:

    • Blood smear to determine the cause of the infection
    • Blood antibody tests, sometimes used but their usefulness is limited


    Treatment involves antibiotics, most often tetracycline, doxycycline, erythromycin, or penicillin.

    Outlook (Prognosis)

    Death rate for untreated LBRF ranges from 10 - 70%.With TBRF, it is 4 -10%. With early treatment, the death rate is reduced.Persons who have developed coma, myocarditis, liver problems, or pneumonia are more likely to die.

    Possible Complications

    • Coma
    • Facial droop
    • Liver dysfunction
    • Meningitis
    • Myocarditis -- may lead to arrhythmias
    • Pneumonia
    • Seizures
    • Shock related to taking antibiotics (Jarisch - Herxheimer's reaction, in which the rapid death of very large numbers of Borrelia organisms induces shock)
    • Weakness
    • Widespread bleeding

    When to Contact a Medical Professional

    Contactyour medical provider right awayif you are a returning traveler and develop a fever. Different possible infections need to be investigated in a timely manner.


    For TBRF, wearing clothing that fullycover the arms and legs when outdoorscan help prevent infection. So can using insect repellent such as DEET on the skin and clothing. Tick and lice control in high-risk areas is another important public health measure.


    Petri WA. Relapsing fever and other Borrelia infections. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011: chap 330.

    Rhee KY, Johnson WD Jr. Borrelia species (relapsing fever). In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolan R, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2009:chap 241.


          A Closer Look

            Talking to your MD

              Self Care

                Tests for Relapsing fever

                  Review Date: 11/10/2012

                  Reviewed By: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.

                  The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

                  A.D.A.M. content is best viewed in IE9 or above, Fire Fox and chrome browser.

                  Back  |  Top
                  About Us
                  Contact Us
                  Locations & Directions
                  Quality Reports
                  Annual Reports
                  Honors & Awards
                  Community Health Needs

                  Brain & Spine
                  Sleep Medicine
                  Urgent Care
                  Women's Services
                  All Services
                  Patients & Visitors
                  Locations & Directions
                  Find a Physician
                  Tour St. Luke's
                  Patient & Visitor Information
                  Contact Us
                  Payment Options
                  Financial Assistance
                  Send a Card
                  Mammogram Appointments
                  Health Tools
                  My Personal Health
                  Spirit of Women
                  Health Information & Tools
                  Clinical Trials
                  Employer Programs -
                  Passport to Wellness

                  Classes & Events
                  Classes & Events
                  Spirit of Women
                  Donate & Volunteer
                  Giving Opportunities
                  Physicians & Employees
                  For Physicians
                  Remote Access
                  Medical Residency Information
                  Pharmacy Residency Information
                  Physician CPOE Training
                  St. Luke's Hospital - 232 South Woods Mill Road - Chesterfield, MO 63017 Main Number: 314-434-1500 Emergency Dept: 314-205-6990 Patient Billing: 888-924-9200
                  Copyright © St. Luke's Hospital Website Terms and Conditions  |  Privacy Policy  |  Notice of Privacy Practices PDF  |  Patient Rights PDF Sitemap St. Luke's Mobile