by Vicki Pritchard, RN, MSN
Ticks are always a threat to humans, no matter in what part of the country they reside. There are many varieties of ticks and most of them can transmit disease.
Typical symptoms of the foremost tick-borne disease, Lyme, are the tell-tale bulls-eye rash, along with fever, headache, and fatigue, but there can be more serious neurological damage. The tick that transmits Lyme, is so small that it is hard to see, being only about the size of a sesame seed, and last year, The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 300,000 cases.
Lyme is the most common tick-borne disease in this country, with most of the cases (but not all, since reporting is not consistent) occurring in the eastern part of the country. It has long been believed that white-tailed deer, which carry deer ticks, were the primary vector for Lyme; however, now it is thought that the white-footed mouse is mostly to blame. These little tick-infested mice are much more efficient at getting the disease into the human population. Tick season is coming soon, and even though the extremely cold winter would seem to be enough to kill ticks, it is just not so easy. Other factors also come into play to determine a season of high or low tick infestation.
Added pathogen exposure may account for why some people fail to recover as expected after antibiotic treatment for Lyme. It is worrisome to learn that the Lyme-carrying ticks harbor not only the causative agent for Lyme disease, but also five other types of bacteria that can cause other diseases. Many unlucky people who did not respond to treatment for Lyme, were most likely ill with another disease as well. Also, and surprisingly, immune system diseases that are viral in origin, and that most adults harbor without symptoms, can be activated by tick-borne disease (Epstein-Barr virus, Cytomegala virus, and malaria-like Babesiosis).
Other tick-borne diseases are also serious. A new Lyme-like disease from Russia mimics relapsing fever. Some other better-known tick-borne diseases that occur in various parts of the country include: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (transmitted by dog ticks), Tularemia, Erlichiosis, Relapsing Fever, Colorado Tick Fever, and others that are even more severe. Also of note, there is a new red meat allergy showing up in some people who have been bitten by the Lone Star Tick (not just in Texas). Their bite leaves an immune reaction to a sugar in red meat. When a Lone Star tick-bitten person eats red meat, the histamine release can cause hives or more serious signs of severe allergic reaction.
Ticks are very mobile. They can jump, can be tossed from moving branches and plants, and they can be blown by the wind. Tick mealtime is rapid as they attach quickly and can begin to feed in two to six hours. Their method of skin penetration and anchoring with spikes and swords looks frighteningly alien when viewed under the microscope. Tick bites start to cause infection after about 24 hours of deeply attaching to the host.
There are some preventive steps that you can take: Dress appropriately when out of doors. Wear clothing with long sleeves and tuck your pants into your socks. Ticks show up better against light colors. Avoid wading through thick brush if at all possible. You do not have to be on a safari to get exposed. Cutting back the pesky lilac bushes in your back yard can expose you to ticks. Also, in order to keep ticks from riding along with you, use DEET-based mosquito repellents.
Check your skin regularly. Ticks are especially fond of the hairline, ears, belly button, and groin. The best protection is to bathe within a couple of hours of the outdoor activity. To remove ticks that are hidden on clothing, wash the clothing right away or dryer-tumble the garments on high heat for as long as the fabric will tolerate. Always keep your cats and dogs up-to-date on their flea and tick protection medication. If you pull a tick off yourself or your pet, try to use tweezers to lift out the head totally. Breaking it off and leaving it inside the skin can still cause disease. Swab the bite mark with alcohol and apply antibiotic cream two or three times a day until it is healed.
If you see redness for more than five days, or if a rash appears around the bite mark, see a health care provider. If you have been exposed to ticks and notice fevers and generally feeling weak and achy, tell the provider that you have possibly been exposed to ticks. Lyme is known as ‘the great imitator’, and symptoms are often misdiagnosed. Chronic symptoms suffered by tick bite victims can include: unusual memory loss, onset of migraines, dizziness, bright light intolerance, irritability, depression, difficulty with concentrating or trouble speaking, eyelid twitches, facial paralysis, swollen neck glands, new joint pain, chronic muscle pain, and unusual fatigue.
Ticks are adapting to pesticides; so aggressive spraying is not effective. Sadly, there is no vaccine to prevent tick-borne disease. Preventive behavior is all we have.
1. Draxler, Breanna, ‘Ten Times the Lyme’, Discover, Jan/Feb, 2014, page 50.
2. Nuwer, Rachel, ‘What is It?’, Scientific American, Jan 2014, page 25.
3. Public Health Grand Rounds, ‘Lyme Disease: Challenges and Innovations’
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USDH, May 19, 2011.
5. ‘Tickborne Diseases in the United States: A Reference manual for Healthcare Providers, first Ed’, 2013, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USDHHS.