Relapsing Fever

Updated: Oct 13, 2021
  • Author: Geneva E Guarin, MD, MBA; Chief Editor: Michael Stuart Bronze, MD  more...
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As the name implies, relapsing fever is a condition characterized by recurrent acute episodes of fever followed by intervening afebrile periods. It is an arthropod-borne infection caused by spirochetes of the Borrelia genus. Spirochetes are a unique species of bacteria that also cause syphilis, Lyme disease, and leptospirosis. [1] The fever relapses result from spirochetal antigenic variation. Relapsing fever, if untreated, may be fatal.

Relapsing fever is an arthropod-borne infection spread by lice (Pediculus humanus) and ticks (Ornithodoros species). Two main forms of this infection exist: tickborne relapsing fever (TBRF) and louse-borne relapsing fever (LBRF).

TBRF is caused by eight or more Borrelia species (eg, Borrelia hermsii, Borrelia turicatae, Borrelia parkeri,Borrelia duttonii), while LBRF is caused solely by Borrelia recurrentis. [1]

TBRF and LBRF vary significantly in terms of epidemiology. A soft-bodied tick (Ornithodoros) transmits multiple Borrelia species that cause endemic relapsing fever, whereas the human body louse transmits B recurrentis, which causes an epidemic form of relapsing fever. Unlike hard ticks, Ornithodoros adult ticks are able to live for many years, feed repeatedly on blood meals, lay eggs, and perpetuate their life cycle. [2] In addition, Ornithodoros ticks may survive long periods in a fasting state. In fact, Ornithodoros turicata ticks have been known to transmit spirochetes in the laboratory setting after 7 years without a blood meal. [2]

Humans are the sole host of B recurrentis, whereas mammals (eg, cattle, pigs, prairie dogs, ground and tree squirrels, chipmunks) and reptiles (lizards, snakes, gopher tortoises) may serve as a reservoir for tickborne Borrelia species. [2]

Relapsing fever is found in the United States in domestic dogs residing in forest cabins. B turicatae [3] and the recently identified B hermsii have also been reported in domesticated dogs.

The first reported case of TBRF in the United States was identified in 1905 in New York. The patient had previously traveled to Texas. [4] In the United States, where fewer than 30 cases of TBRF are diagnosed each year, [5] B hermsii and B turicatae cause most outbreaks. A recently discovered Borrelia species, Borrelia miyamotoi, has been found in hard-bodies ticks in regions where Lyme disease is endemic. B miyamotoi may coexist with Borrelia burgdorferi [6, 7, 8] and Babesia. [8]

TBRF is reported worldwide, except Antarctica, Australia, and the Pacific Southwest.

LBRF is uncommon in the United States but is occasionally observed in travelers returning from endemic regions (see International). The last reported outbreak of LBRF in the United States occurred in 1871. [9]

The pathophysiology, clinical manifestations, differential diagnoses, diagnostic work-up, and treatment of relapsing fever will be discussed here.



Spirochetes are wavy filamentous bacteria with one or more flagellae at each end. [1] Most borrelial spirochetes measure 10-30 µm long X 0.2 µm wide. In TBRF, the spirochetes are transmitted via the bite of an infected tick, whereas, in LBRF, contact with hemolymph from the human body louse (eg, from scratching-induced louse crushing) is the mode of spirochete transfer.

Most Ornithodoros tick bites occur at night and go unnoticed in most individuals. [10] Other described modes of transmission in the literature include blood transfusions, a laboratory worker who was bitten by an infected monkey with gingival bleeding, and intravenous drug use. [2] In rare cases, transplacental transmission has been reported. [11] The spirochete is not transmitted via aerosol, saliva, urine, feces, or semen.

The recently discovered B miyamotoi species is transmitted by tick bite and may be transmissible via blood transfusion. [12] Recent data demonstrate that this species resists human complement-mediated killing. [13]

Spirochetes enter breaks in the skin or mucous membranes, gain access to the vasculature, and disseminate to the spleen, bone marrow, liver, lungs, kidneys, and CNS. All it takes is a single spirochete to initiate the infectious process.

Borrelia species are able to induce cycles of disease by varying antigen expression and by displaying new outer-surface proteins during the disease course. The antigenic variants are referred to as serotypes.

The phenomenon of antigenic variation contributes to the recurring nature of relapsing fever. [14]

These proteins are named either variable small proteins or variable large proteins and are encoded within plasmid DNA. Alteration of these proteins prevents elimination of the spirochetes by the immune system, leading to recurrent febrile episodes. [2] In 2008, Thein et al identified and described the first porin of relapsing fever, Oms38, which is present in the outer membranes of B hermsii, B turicatae, B duttonii, and B recurrentis. [15]

The ability of a single spirochete to switch expression among antigenically distinct VSP and VLP genes allows escape from an individual host’s immune response. Allelic polymorphism or genetic variability of VSP and VLP genes within the total spirochete population may help to evade herd immunity. [16]

Recent experiments in mice have shown that interleukin-10 (IL-10) may play a protective role in down-regulating inflammation and spirochete load. [17, 18] Extraordinarily high serum IL-10 levels have been found in patients with LBRF in whom the disease course is relatively mild. [18] Hemorrhage and thrombosis were more commonly observed in IL-10–deficient mice. [18]




United States

TBRF has been reported in several states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, [19] and Ohio. TBRF usually occurs during the summer in people who are on vacation and/or who are traveling to mountainous regions (elevation >8000 ft). [19] Cases of TBRF have been reported in persons inhabiting seasonally occupied lake areas and cabins infested with rodents and/or their ticks. During winter, the ticks are attracted to heat and carbon dioxide generated from indoor fires. [19]

Most (74%) patients diagnosed with TBRF in the United States between 1990 and 2011 had onset of illness from June to September, with a peak during July to August (52%). In Texas, cases occurred more frequently (67%) during November to March, and 11 cases (61%) were associated with spelunking. [20]


TBRF is endemic in Canada (southern portion of British Columbia), Mexico, Central and South America, central Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean region, and Russia. [21]

LBRF is endemic in Ethiopia and Sudan, especially during the rainy season. The disease typically occurs in areas of war, famine, mass migrations, or overcrowding. [5] Homeless people in crowded shelters are also at risk of LBRF. In a study of 930 homeless people in Marseilles, France, body lice were found in 22%, and immunoglobulin G (IgG) to B recurrentis was found in 15 individuals. [22]

In 2015, several cases of LBRF were reported among asylum seekers from Eritrea in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany. [23, 24, 25, 26]

In 2016, more cases of LBRF were reported in refugees from East Africa [27] who were residing in Germany.

The prevalence of Borrelia hispanica was reported to be 20.5% among febrile patients in northwestern Morocco. [28]

The prevalence of B miyamotoi among Ixodes ricinus ticks in Europe was up to 3.2%, according to studies conducted from 2003-2014. [29]


In the United States, TBRF carries a low mortality rate. Overall, TBRF carries a mortality rate of less than 2% (in treated patients) to 4-10% (in untreated individuals). [30] LBRF carries a higher mortality rate, with a case-fatality rate of 4% (in treated patients) to 40% (in untreated individuals). [31] Two species of Borrelia associated with a relatively high rate of relapsing fever–related fatality include B recurrentis (causes LBRF; found in Africa, South America, Europe, and Asia) and B duttoni (causes TBRF; found in East Africa and transmitted by the soft tick Ornithodoros moubata). [2]

Poor prognostic indicators include coma on admission, bleeding, myocarditis, hepatic failure, bronchopneumonia, or co-infection with malaria, [32, 33] typhus, or typhoid fever. [34]

Natives of areas with LBRF endemicity usually experience a milder form of the disease than visitors.

Antibiotic treatment of relapsing fever commonly results in Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction (JHR; see Complications). This reaction tends to be more severe in patients with LBRF treated with penicillin. Pretreatment with steroids does not seem to alter this reaction.

TBRF has been linked to complications during pregnancy, resulting in neonatal death (up to 50%), spontaneous abortion, and premature birth (see Complications). [35]


Relapsing fever has no racial predilection.


Relapsing fever has no sexual predilection.



Approximately 4 to 10 percent mortality rate is associated with untreated tick-borne relapsing fever (TBRF), while 10 to 70 percent for louse-borne relapsing fever (LBRF) [36] . Increase in mortality rate is seen in patients who present with: stupor or coma on admission, bleeding, myocarditis, poor liver function, malnutrition, bronchopneumonia, coinfection with typhus, typhoid [37] , or malaria. [38, 39]  Immediate appropriate management result in significant decrease in mortality rates: to less than 2 percent for TBRF, and 2 to 5 percent for LBRF. [36]