The black-legged tick is one of several tick species capable of transmitting parasite-borne disease to human hosts. Outdoors enthusiasts should be wary of ticks and their dangerous potential as they venture afield during the warmer months.
As the weather warms and you spend more time outdoors, don’t forget to allow time for a tick check. While some people make light of them, tick bites should be taken seriously. Ticks are the leading carriers of diseases to humans in the United States, second only to mosquitoes worldwide.
Ticks are small spider-like animals (arachnids) that fasten themselves onto the skin and feed on blood. Ticks hide in low brush to allow them to come into contact with a host animal. Most tick bites occur during early spring to late summer.
Most ticks do not carry diseases and most tick bites do not cause serious health problems, but it is very important to remove a tick as soon as it is found. This helps decrease the likelihood of contracting any potential tick-borne illness. Take care to remove the tick’s head to prevent an infection in the skin where the bite occurred.
Use fine-tipped tweezers to properly remove an attached tick. Grab the tick as close to its mouth as possible. The body of the tick will often be above the skin’s surface, but its head and mouth will likely be buried. Grabbing the tick by its belly can force infected fluids out of its mouth and into the skin. Pull the tick straight out until its mouth lets go of the skin. If practical, put the removed tick in a dry container and save it in the freezer for later identification if suspicious symptoms develop. Wash the area where the tick was attached with warm, soapy water and apply an antibiotic ointment to the bite area to prevent infection.
Many tick-borne diseases cause flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and muscle aches. Symptoms may begin from one to three weeks after the bite. Sometimes a rash or sore appears along with the symptoms. Common tick-borne maladies include Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, ehrlichiosis, relapsing fever, and babesiosis.
Lyme disease symptoms include fatigue, headache, stiff neck, fever, muscle or joint pain, swelling, and sometimes an expanding red rash. If a rash develops, it may look like a target or bull’s-eye on the skin. Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to many other conditions and tests do not always detect the bacteria. It is usually effectively treated with a short course of antibiotics. If not treated properly, it can lead to complications involving the heart, nervous system, joints and skin, sometimes several years later.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever, is a bacterial infection passed to humans by wood ticks and dog ticks. It can lead to life-threatening complications such as shock and kidney failure if not promptly treated. Initial symptoms usually start an average of seven days after the tick bite and include sudden fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, rash, nausea and vomiting. The rash typically is made up of tiny, flat, purple or red spots. It usually starts on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, and then spreads to the arms, legs and the rest of the body.
Tularemia, also called deerfly fever or rabbit fever, is a disease that usually occurs in animals, but can be transmitted to humans through an infected tick. Symptoms usually start within 21 days, but average one to 10 days after the tick bite. Symptoms of tularemia include chills, sudden high fever, headache, an open crater-like sore at the site of the bite, swollen glands near the bite, nausea and vomiting.
Ehrlichiosis is an infectious tick-borne disease that causes fever, chills, headache, general ill feeling, nausea, vomiting and a purple or red rash. Symptoms usually start from one to 21 days (average of seven days) after the tick bite.
Relapsing fever is most common in the western United States. Symptoms usually start three to 11 days (average of six days) after the tick bite. They may last for several days, go away, and then return several days later. Symptoms include sudden high fever, headache, rapid heart rate, muscle aches, abdominal pain, general feeling of illness, and a rash in up to 50 percent of cases.
Babesiosis is a rare parasitic disease passed to humans by deer ticks. It may not always cause symptoms. When present, symptoms usually start one to four weeks after the tick bite. Symptoms of babesiosis include a general feeling of illness, decreased appetite, fatigue, fever, chills, recurring sweats and muscle aches.
After spending time in areas where ticks may live, always carefully check for ticks on the skin and scalp. A little time spent conducting a tick check may prevent days, weeks or months of illness. If suspicious symptoms do develop after being bitten by a tick, do not delay in consulting a physician. As in most disease circumstances, the earlier diagnosis occurs and treatment is begun the better.