Troublesome ticks annoy people and pets alike, and this season is already developing as one of the most problematic in years as the tiny bloodsuckers have weathered a mild winter with ease and emerged in great numbers. A member of the arachnid family, ticks are well-known for attaching themselves to a host animal or human and feeding on its blood until filled. Knowing more about how these critters survive and operate can help you steer clear of itchy and painful tick bites, or worse, a serious tick-borne illness that could require medical treatment.
Ticks fall into two broad classifications— hard and soft—and both are potential carriers, or vectors, of disease. They develop from egg, larval and nymph stages into adults, and several varieties are active during most of the year. Ticks typically inhabit moist areas, grassy or wooded locations, forests and lake environments, shrubbery and piles of leaves, and lie in wait for a host to pass.
“Ticks need warmer, humid environments to thrive, so naturally we will see more of them in this region than in the cooler, drier climate of the upper Midwest,” says Dr. Christopher Haddock, a physician with Erlanger South Family Medicine. “Deer ticks [also called blacklegged ticks] are particularly plentiful in this region due to the large deer herd, as well as the common dog tick we find on our pets. Along with the lone star tick, they make up the majority of ticks capable of transmitting a tick-borne illness and are probably the most prominently seen in human tick bites.”
When a host is found, a tick embeds into the skin with barbed mouthparts and secretes a glue-like substance that helps hold it in place. An anesthetic in the tick’s saliva numbs the surrounding surface, preventing the host from feeling the bite. Soft ticks usually feed in less than one hour. Hard ticks may feed for a few hours up to several days.
Symptoms and Signs of Tick-borne Illness
Most tick bites cause little more than minor itching or discomfort, and these symptoms can be treated with antihistamines for itchiness and irritation and antibiotic creams to prevent infection at the site. However, some tick bites can cause serious illness if the tick’s saliva contains certain viruses, bacteria or other pathogens. Ticks are known carriers of at least a dozen diseases, some causing mild discomfort while others are potentially serious. The most common tick-borne illnesses in the Southeast include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis.
The tick bite itself appears as a small, reddened and indented area where the mouthparts had previously attached. Bite symptoms usually occur after the tick has dropped off or been removed, while symptoms of a more complex illness often emerge several days later. Fever, chills, aches and pains, and a distinctive rash are common.
“You really can’t tell from looking at a bite, whether it’s some other insect or not,” says Cindy Simmons, a certified physician assistant at Erlanger at Hutcheson. “So really, what you are often looking for are the symptoms that would follow that are of concern. Things like fever, nausea, vomiting, pain in the area. Those symptoms give you an impression that there’s something going on that you need to be aware of.” Consult a physician with the onset of any symptoms possibly related to a tick bite.
In the case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is transmitted by the dog tick, symptoms generally arise 2-14 days following a bite. In the first three days, an infected person may have a fever higher than 102 degrees and a severe headache. Between the third and fifth day of fever, most begin to develop a rash on wrists and ankles which spreads to the arms, legs and trunk. Fortunately, the bacteria causing Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be effectively treated with antibiotics.
Lyme disease, the most common tickborne disease in the Northern Hemisphere, gained attention in New England in 1975. Transmitted by the deer tick, this bacterial disease also responds well to antibiotics if treated early. The most recognizable symptom of Lyme disease is a circular bulls-eye rash that develops 3-30 days after infection. Later stages of the disease produce skin lesions, fatigue, and cardiac, neurological and arthritis-like symptoms.
“Lyme disease has a neurologic, cardiac, and arthritic effect, so if you don’t treat it early, you can develop pretty serious longterm complications,” Simmons says. “Also, if you have other types of problems or deficiencies— like HIV or rheumatoid arthritis or are on medications that make you immunologically compromised, waiting to take an antibiotic can be really dangerous.”
The symptoms of ehrlichiosis are similar to those of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but milder. Caused by bacteria, the disease is transmitted by the lone star tick and characterized by fever and a rash.
“The overwhelming majority of tick bites will not result in any infection,” Dr. Haddock says. “For those that do, certain types of rashes are associated with certain of these illnesses. So anything more than a small bit of inflammation and redness at the bite site would warrant evaluation by your physician.”
“One of the most important things about ticks is that you don’t want to leave them attached,” Simmons says. “It heightens the probability of transmission if it’s going to occur.”
Contrary to folk remedies that continue to circulate, the best method of removing a tick is grasping it firmly as close to its mouth as possible with a pair of fine-tipped tweezers. Without twisting, pull with steady, upward pressure to cause the tick to release. Make sure that all mouthparts are removed, and thoroughly cleanse the bite area with alcohol or soap and water. If some portion of the tick remains beneath the skin, Dr. Haddock recommends a visit to the family doctor.
Do not coat the body of the tick with oil, alcohol, Vaseline or other substances. “It’s important to not put anything caustic on it like nail polish or kerosene because it can cause the tick to regurgitate [dangerous organisms] into the skin,” Simmons says.
Also, do not attempt to remove the tick with a hot match, or twist the tick when pulling it out. The goal is rapid and complete removal. Avoid handling the tick and wash it down a drain or flush it down the toilet after removal. Wash hands thoroughly.
How to Protect Yourself
Preventing tick bites means following a few simple precautions and being vigilant before and after spending time outdoors. Keep grass and shrubs trimmed and avoid entering overgrown areas. “Be especially careful in areas that have high concentrations of deer or other types of mammals where the ticks can live,” Simmons says. “Also be wary of any place with high brush. The baby ticks will be on the tops of brushes and as you walk through, you can pick up a whole bunch at one time.” If you’re going camping or hiking, Simmons suggests wearing long sleeves and long pants with the legs tucked inside socks, and using insect repellents containing DEET to repel the little critters.
Upon returning indoors, check thoroughly for ticks and pay close attention to children and pets. Ticks attach to the body at any location, often in the hair and scalp, behind ears or knees or along the waistline.
“Doing a very thorough check of your body head to toe at least once every 24 hours if not more frequently is a necessity,” Dr. Haddock says. “The harder the place is for you to check, the more likely it is for a tick to be found. Be thorough, and if you can’t do it yourself, have someone else check. This is particularly important for parents of young children.”
While the risk of a tick encounter is elevated this season, knowing prevention techniques and the best ways to cope with bites can help ensure a safe and enjoyable outdoor experience.