It’s tick season again, so be on guard against them. They may be tiny—most about the size of a pinhead—but their damage can be mighty by spreading disease. For example, in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that there were 27,203 cases of Lyme disease—a tick-borne disease—reported in the United States.
Lyme disease can cause a lot of damage to your health, too. Initial symptoms include fatigue, fever, headache and, sometimes but not always, a skin rash—typically in a telltale bullseye formation. Those symptoms also mirror several other infections, so it’s hard to pin down Lyme disease as the immediate culprit. Couple that with the fact that most people don’t even realize when a tick has latched on to them to drink their blood—since the tick can be gone before you even know it’s been there—and you can see why an early diagnosis is sometimes difficult. However, if Lyme disease is left untreated, then it can spread through the body to affect the heart, joints and nervous system. That’s when there can be further trouble. Since Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, it is often treated with oral antibiotics. If, however, the disease has progressed, then intravenous antibiotics may be necessary.
Lyme disease is transmitted only by blacklegged ticks, or deer ticks. They don’t automatically carry Lyme disease, either. They get it from feeding on an infected host and then transmit the disease to the next “victim” or “victims,” and they need to be attached to the host for at least 36-to-48 hours before the bacteria are transmitted.
Ticks are pretty tricky, too, about how they find their hosts. They can’t jump or fly, so they wait for hosts on the tips of grasses or shrubs in a position known as “questing”—holding onto the grass or shrub with their back pairs of legs and their first pair of legs outstretched and ready to climb on a host when he or she goes past the tick. They locate their hosts by detecting body heat, smells, breath, moisture, vibrations and even shadows, in some cases.
When ticks feed, they don’t burrow into the skin. They grasp the skin’s surface and insert their feeding tube, and some ticks will further latch on to their host with barbs located on their feeding tubes, or even secrete a cement-like substance to hold on better. Once they are securely attached, they will begin feeding, a time that can range from hours to days. When feeding is completed, they drop off their host and go along their merry way—to the next lifecycle stage.
You might think that you would surely notice that kind of activity on your skin, but ticks are difficult to spot unless you are searching for them. They’re small, but they also have the ability to secrete a type of anesthetic that numbs the area where they feed so that they remain even more undetectable to the host.
Even though it can be a challenge, it’s important to remove a tick as fast as possible after it attaches to reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease or other tick-borne diseases. As mentioned, it can take 36-to-48 hours for Lyme disease to be transmitted, but that’s not the case with other tick-borne diseases such as Powassan virus. Powassan virus can be transmitted by deer ticks in a matter of hours. It exhibits many symptoms of Lyme disease, but there is no cure for Powassan, and it can be fatal in some cases. Other diseases that can be transmitted by the deer tick include babesiosis and anaplasmosis
Other tick species can carry other diseases. The lonestar tick, for example, can carry and transmit ehrlichiosis, southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI), tularemia and possibly heartland virus. Likewise, the Rocky Mountain wood tick can carry and spread Colorado tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) and tularemia. The list goes on, but the bottom line is that you want to avoid being a tick victim, so here are some tips to abide by during tick season, which generally ranges from April through September.
First off, stay away from where ticks generally reside—wooded, grassy or bushy areas. It’s also a good idea to wear long-sleeved tops as well as long pants so that you can tuck the ends of them into your socks for added protection. Repellents can also work, including more natural ones made from essential oils. And, last but not least, if you have been out in an area where ticks are known to live, then conduct a full-body check once you get back. Also, take off the clothes and socks you were wearing and toss them in the washing machine first thing, in case you are carrying an unwanted tick on your clothing.
So, what if you find a tick on you? Get some tweezers and tweeze away the tick as close to the surface of the skin as possible, using steady, even pressure and pull it upwards. If you twist or jerk the tweezers while pulling, the tick’s mouthparts could remain embedded in the skin. However, if they do get lodged in the skin, then tweeze those out, too. After removing the tick, put the tick in rubbing alcohol in a sealed container or flush it down the toilet and wash the affected area as well as your hands. Whatever you do, don’t try to squash the tick!
So, stay safe out there this season and watch out for those tiny bloodsuckers. They can be bad news for your health.