Health Encyclopedia

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) in Children

What is Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) is an infection caused by the bite of an infected tick. It usually occurs from April until September, but it can occur anytime during the year where weather is warm. The mid-Atlantic and southeastern states are most affected. The disease is spread to humans through a bite from an infected tick; it is not spread from one person to another.

In the U.S., the American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), the Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni), and the brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus), have been identified as vectors that transmit the RMSF bacteria.

What are the symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?

The following are the most common symptoms of RMSF. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • A nonitchy rash that usually starts around day 3 on the wrists and ankles, and spreading to the legs and trunk, then palms and soles.

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Decreased appetite

  • Chills

  • Sore throat

  • Stomachache

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Body aches

  • Sensitivity to light

RMSF is a serious illness that should be treated as soon as possible. Death has occurred in untreated cases of RMSF.

The symptoms of RMSF may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

How is RMSF diagnosed?

Diagnosis is based on symptoms and past history of a tick bite. The appearance and characteristics of the rash are important. Skin biopsy samples and lab tests (antibody titer, kidney function tests, platelet count, prothrombin time, partial thromboplastin time, urinalysis, and red blood cell count) are usually done to rule out other conditions and confirm the diagnosis.

What is the treatment for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?

Specific treatment for RMSF will be determined by your child's doctor based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the infection

  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the infection

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include antibiotics and supportive care (care aimed at treating the symptoms present). Doxycycline is the antibiotic of choice, and it will be continued for several days after the fever goes away. Doxycycline is in the tetracycline drug family, and these drugs are usually not given to children under the age of 8 because of the risk of staining the permanent teeth. However, in the case of suspected RMSF, it is more important to treat the illness. 

How can Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever be prevented?

Once a child has RMSF, he or she cannot be reinfected. Some general guidelines for preventing RMSF include the following:

  • Since ticks cannot bite through clothing; dress your child and family in:

    • Light-colored clothing so that ticks can be easily seen 

    • Long-sleeved shirts tucked into pants

    • Socks and closed-toe shoes

    • Long pants with legs tucked into socks

  • Check your family often for ticks, including:

    • All parts of the body that bend: behind the knees, between fingers and toes, underarms, and groin

    • Other areas where ticks are commonly found: belly button, in and behind the ears, neck, hairline, and top of the head

    • Areas of pressure points, including:

      • Where underwear elastic touches the skin

      • Where bands from pants or skirts touch the skin

      • Anywhere else where clothing presses on the skin

  • All other areas of the body and hair, and run fingers gently over skin. Run a fine-toothed comb through your child's hair to check for ticks.

  • Other helpful measures include:

    • When possible, walk on cleared paths and pavement through wooded areas and fields.

    • Shower after all outdoor activities are over for the day. It may take up to four to six hours for ticks to attach firmly to skin. Showering may help remove any loose ticks.

    • Use insect repellents safely:

      • Products that contain DEET are tick repellents, but may not kill the tick and are not 100 percent effective. Use a children's insect repellent (20 to 30 percent DEET) and check with your child's doctor if your child is younger than age 1 before using. Do not apply insect repellants around your child's mouth, nose, or eyes, or over cuts or open sores. 

      • Treat clothing with small amounts of a product that contains permethrin, which is known to kill ticks on contact. Do not use permethrin on the skin.

    • Check pets for ticks and treat as needed.



Medical Reviewers:

  • newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
  • Whittaker, Kay C, MS, APRN,FNP