If you spend time outside or have pets that go outdoors, it’s important to be aware of tick bites—their symptoms, prevention, and treatment. Some ticks transmit Lyme Disease, so we’ll also help you understand types of ticks and disease symptoms.
Ticks are small bloodsucking parasites. Ticks not only carry the dangerous Lyme disease, but also Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever, or a number of other diseases. In fact, ticks are the leading carriers of diseases to humans in the U.S., and second only to mosquitoes worldwide. Similarly to mosquitoes, toxins in the tick’s saliva cause the disease.
As many as 300,000 people may be diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease each year through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. It is a regional affliction with 95% of the cases occurring in 14 states in the Upper Midwest, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic, but the only state that has had no reports of Lyme disease is Hawaii. Lyme disease is most common in children 5 to 15 years old and adults 40 to 60 years of age, and risk of infection is greatest from May to August.
What Is Lyme Disease?
An infected tick transmits the spiral-shaped bacterium called a spirochete to us through a tick bite. Because of the spirochete’s shape, it is able to corkscrew its way from the bloodstream into soft tissue, tendons, joints, and bones. There is some controversy about how long the tick needs to be embedded to transmit the disease. The CDC says 24 hours, but some doctors claim only four hours or less will do it.
Lyme Disease Symptoms
Lyme disease is hard to diagnose because so many of its symptoms—such as fever, chills, sore joints, headaches, and exhaustion—mimic other diseases. Tick bites are also generally painless and may go completely unnoticed.
If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.
One common symptom is the telltale Lyme disease rash, called erythema migrans. This rash forms the shape of a bullseye around the location of the tick bite. It is red and usually appears within 3 to 14 days of the tick bite. The rash will then grow larger, and sometimes more than one rash can develop. Go to the doctor immediately if you have the rash. Other rashes can develop around tick bites that are not associated with Lyme disease, but it is best to be safe. Not everyone who is infected with Lyme disease contracts the rash, so it is actually a lucky sign that will allow the doctor to make a quick diagnosis and provide treatment.
If Lyme disease is allowed to progress, it can be a debilitating illness. If you live in an area that is prone to ticks carrying Lyme disease, check yourself regularly for ticks and be aware of Lyme disease symptoms. Even if you think you might just have a cold, if you’ve recently had a tick bite, you should check with your doctor.
Types of Ticks
Hard ticks have a tough back plate and tend to feed for hours to days. With hard ticks, disease transmission usually occurs near the end of a meal.
Soft ticks have a more rounded body and lack the back plate. They usually feed for less than an hour and disease transmission can occur in less than a minute.
Lyme disease is caused by hard ticks including deer ticks. Sitting on a log in the woods, leaning up against a tree or gathering wood are risky activities when trying to avoid ticks.
The deer tick or black-legged tick is so tiny that it can be difficult to see. At the nymph stage it is even smaller—about the size of a poppy seed and translucent. Since the nymphs are so hard to see, they can latch on to us unnoticed. This can make it even harder to recognize the symptoms of Lyme disease for what they are. Normally these nymphs feed on mice, deer, and birds, but any warm body will do.
The deer tick is known to carry Lyme disease. If you have a tick bite from a black-legged tick, save the tick for disease testing.
The black-legged tick has a two-year life cycle. Adults feed on large animals like deer, mate, and lay eggs in the soil in fall and early spring. These eggs hatch into larvae which feed on mice, birds, and people until they become adults in the fall and start the cycle all over again.
Ticks are highly active in the early spring and again in the fall. Ticks may get on you if you walk through areas where they live, such as tall grass, leaf litter or shrubs, woods, meadows, and near the water’s edge.
How to Prevent Tick Bites and Lyme Disease
There are several ways to keep ourselves tick-safe. Take the following precautions when working outside:
- Stay out of tick-infested areas such as overgrown grass, brush, and leaf litter.
- When outdoors, wear light-colored protective clothing
- Shower after working outside to wash off unattached ticks.
- Check yourself, the kids, and pets thoroughly for ticks on days you go outdoors.
- Tall rubber boots are too slippery for ticks. Wear long sleeves and long pants to keep them off your skin.
- Tuck your pants into your socks to keep ticks from crawling up your leg.
- Use a repellent that contains at least 20-30% DEET or wear treated clothing.
For more information on ticks and Lyme disease, visit the American Lyme Disease Foundation website.
If you find a tick on your skin, use fine-tipped tweezers will remove a tick quite effectively.
- Use the tweezers to firmly grasp the tick as close to its head and as close to your skin as possible. Avoid squeezing the tick’s abdomen; crushing a tick may transmit diseases.
- Pull gently upward until the tick comes free. Do not twist and turn the tick, as the head or mouth parts may break off and stay in the skin, increasing the chances for infection. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
When removing a tick with tweezers, be sure to remove the entire tick and leave no parts in the skin. (Photo Credit: University of Maine.)
- Disinfect the tweezers with rubbing alcohol, and wash your hands thoroughly.
- Observe the bite area for several days. Illnesses transmitted by the tick often begin only days or weeks after the tick is gone. If symptoms occur, tell the physician if you have been outdoors.
- Symptoms may include fever, numbness, rash, confusion, weakness, pain and swelling in the joints, shortness of breath, nausea, and/or vomiting. Blood tests are needed to diagnose any illness.
What to Do with a Removed Tick
- Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag, and wrapping it tightly in tape. Never crush a tick with your fingers.
- When disposing of a tick that has not attached yet, drop it into a sealed plastic bag and throw it into the trash. Or, you can drop it into a jar of rubbing alcohol; with this method, you can save it for later identification, although it is better not to do this if you want to have it tested for disease.
- Do not flush a live tick down the toilet. Ticks do not drown in water and have been known to crawl back up out of the toilet bowl.
- If you are bitten, it is recommended that you save the tick for identification and send it to a lab to test if the tick is carrying a disease. In this case, place the tick in a tightly closed container, such as a vial or a zippered plastic bag (doubled, if the tick is alive). Do not soak the tick in alcohol. If the tick is alive (which is preferable for testing), some labs ask that you place a cotton ball moistened with a few drops of water in the container. Label the container with the date, your name and contact information, the bite’s location on the body, and your general health at the time. If known, also list the geographical location from which the tick may have originated. Send live ticks as soon as possible to a lab; some labs accept dead or damaged ticks as well. If the tick is dead and you don’t want to have it tested, you can store the container in the freezer for later tick ID in case symptoms develop.
Do you often deal with ticks? How do you keep yourself tick-free? Please share with the Almanac community in the comments section below!