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Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever ˈräk-ē-ˈmau̇nt-ᵊn-

By William A. Petri, Jr, MD, PhD

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (spotted fever, tick fever, tick typhus) is a potentially fatal rickettsial infection that is transmitted by dog ticks and wood ticks. It causes a rash, headache, and high fever.

  • People become infected when a tick carrying the infection bites them.

  • A severe headache, chills, extreme exhaustion, and muscle pains develop, usually followed a few days later by a rash.

  • Avoiding tick bites is the best way to prevent the infection.

  • People are given antibiotics immediately if they have been bitten by a tick and have typical symptoms.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is caused by the bacteria Rickettsia rickettsii and is probably the most common rickettsial infection in the United States. It was first recognized in the Rocky Mountain states but occurs throughout most of the continental United States. It is most common in the southeastern and south central United States (North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri). It also occurs in Central and South America. The infection occurs mainly from March to September, when adult ticks are active and people are likely to be in tick-infested areas. In the southern states, the disease may occur throughout the year. People who spend a lot of time in tick-infested areas—such as children younger than 15—have an increased risk of infection.

Ticks acquire rickettsiae by feeding on infected mammals. Infected female ticks can also transmit rickettsiae to their offspring. Infection is spread to people through bites by wood ticks or dog ticks. Rickettsial infection is probably not transmitted directly from person to person.

Rickettsiae live and multiply in the cells lining blood vessels. Blood vessels in and under the skin and in the brain, lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, and spleen are commonly infected. Small infected blood vessels may become blocked by blood clots.

Did You Know...

  • Almost three fourths of people with symptoms remember having a tick bite.


Typically, symptoms include a severe headache, chills, extreme exhaustion (prostration), and muscle pains. Symptoms begin suddenly 3 to 12 days after a tick bite. The more quickly symptoms begin, the more severe the infection. A high fever develops within several days and, in severe infections, persists for 1 to 3 weeks. A hacking, dry cough may also develop. Nausea and vomiting are common.

On about the fourth day of the fever, a rash appears on the wrists and ankles and rapidly extends to the palms, soles, forearms, neck, face, armpits, buttocks, and trunk. At first, the rash is flat and pink but later darkens and becomes slightly raised. It does not itch. Warm water—for example, in a bath—makes the rash more evident. In about 4 days, small purplish areas (petechiae) develop because of bleeding in the skin. If the infection is severe, areas of skin may die and turn black, indicating gangrene.

As this infection progresses, it may cause other symptoms:

  • Restlessness, insomnia, delirium, or sometimes coma if the blood vessels in the brain are affected

  • Abdominal pain

  • Inflammation of the airways (pneumonitis) and pneumonia

  • Heart damage

  • Anemia

  • Severe low blood pressure and death (uncommonly, when the infection is severe)


Doctors suspect Rocky Mountain spotted fever if people

  • Live in or near a wooded area anywhere in the Western Hemisphere

  • Have a fever and headache and feel exhausted for no apparent reason, whether they have a tick bite or not

About 70% of people remember being bitten by a tick.

To confirm the diagnosis (see Overview of Rickettsial Infections : Diagnosis), doctors usually do an immunofluorescence assay and use the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique, which uses a sample from the rash or blood. For immunofluorescence assays, foreign substances produced by the bacteria (antigens) are labeled with a fluorescent dye. PCR techniques increase the amount of the bacteria's DNA. Both techniques make the bacteria easier to detect and identify.


There is no vaccine against this infection, so avoiding tick bites is the best prevention (see Figure: Preventing Tick Bites). The following measures can help:

  • Tucking trousers into boots or socks and applying insecticide that contains permethrin to clothing limits tick access to skin.

  • Tick repellents such as DEET (diethyltoluamide) may be applied to the skin. These repellents are effective but, rarely, cause toxic reactions, such as seizures, in small children.

  • Searching frequently for ticks helps prevent infection because the tick must be attached for 24 hours on average to transmit infection.

  • Attached ticks should be removed carefully with tweezers. The head of the tick should be grasped as close to the skin as possible. Care must be taken when removing a tick because rickettsiae may be transmitted if an infected tick that is engorged with blood is crushed while being removed.


Doctors immediately prescribe antibiotics if they suspect the infection based on symptoms and the potential for exposure to infected ticks—even if laboratory test results are not yet available. Early treatment with antibiotics has reduced the death rate from about 20% to 5%.

Doxycycline is usually used, but chloramphenicol is also effective. They are given by mouth when the infection is mild and intravenously when it is more severe. People take the antibiotic until they improve and have had no fever for 24 to 48 hours, but they must take it for at least 7 days. However, a doctor usually does not prescribe antibiotics for people who have had a tick bite but have no symptoms. Instead, the doctor may ask them to immediately report symptoms.

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