The Heartland virus is part of a group of viruses called phleboviruses that can sometimes cause illness in humans. Scientists believe the Heartland virus is spread to humans by ticks that carry the virus and that it can make you sick. Doctors first noticed it in 2009 in Missouri. One type of tick -- the lone star tick -- is thought to transmit the virus to humans. But there may be other ticks as well. Scientists continue to study the illness.
There have been reports of the disease in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Georgia, among other places.
Serious flu-like symptoms are most common in people with the Heartland virus. These include:
- Tiredness without obvious reason
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle or joint pain
- Nausea and diarrhea
These symptoms often mirror those of other tick-borne illnesses like ehrlichiosis or anaplasmosis. In many cases, symptoms are serious enough to require that you go to the hospital. It may be up to 2 weeks after an infected tick bite that you first notice symptoms.
Along with the symptoms of illness, your medical tests might show:
- Lower white blood cell counts
- Lower count of platelets (which help clot blood)
- Higher levels of liver enzymes
If you notice a bug bite and think you might have the Heartland virus or some other tick-borne illness, contact your health care provider. They will likely ask you about your symptoms and may be able to run some tests to rule out other causes of your symptoms.
For example, they might test for illnesses such as tularemia, ehrlichiosis, and West Nile virus, among others.
If they suspect the Heartland virus, they may do more tests on white blood cells, blood platelets, and liver function. They may also contact the local health authority.
Unlike the more commonly known tick-borne illness, Lyme disease, the Heartland virus cannot be treated with antibiotics. Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria, while the Heartland virus is caused, as its name suggests, by a virus. Antibiotics don’t work against viral infections, only against bacterial ones.
There is no vaccine against the Heartland virus, and doctors don’t yet have an antiviral medication to treat it. But your health care provider can treat the symptoms caused by the virus to keep you comfortable. They will keep you hydrated to prevent these symptoms from doing more serious harm.
The best way to prevent infection with the Heartland virus is to prevent tick bites in areas where ticks carry the virus. Ticks are most active in warm months, from April to September. It’s a good idea to find out the kinds of ticks that are active in your area. If you know you’re going to be around ticks, there are some other actions you can take:
- Avoid grassy, bushy, or wooded areas when you can.
- Treat clothing and gear with products that contain permethrin. You can put it on boots, clothes, and camping gear to protect against ticks.
- Use insect repellents approved by Environmental Protection Agency.
- Check your body from head to toe for ticks after being outdoors.
- Check pets, clothing, and gear for ticks that might have hitched a ride as well.
- When possible, put dry clothes in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to help kill ticks.
- Shower within 2 hours of coming inside. (It’s a good chance for a tick check.)
Heartland virus symptoms can be serious and often require that you go to the hospital for a while. But most people can return to normal health in weeks or months after they leave the hospital.