Just talking or reading about them may make your skin crawl. But there are some important things you need to know about ticks — because they can spread potentially life-threatening diseases. On the mild end, tick bites can cause itching, swelling and discomfort. On the more serious end, they can cause chills, nausea, fevers, neurological problems and, in rare cases, death.
But knowledge is power. Keep reading to learn how to protect yourself from the potential illnesses they carry.
Most tick bites DO NOT lead to infection
There are hundreds of tick species across the world. Ick! Thankfully, only a handful of them cause trouble for humans.
Lyme disease, while not common in Tennessee, is the most frequently reported vector-borne illness in the U.S. (A vector is any living thing that can transfer diseases.) The blacklegged tick (or deer tick) spreads Lyme disease, which can cause a hallmark bull's-eye rash, flu-like symptoms, joint pain and swelling, brain inflammation and other problems. Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which can cause fever, headache and a rash, is a potentially deadly disease if not treated by the right antibiotic. And don’t rest easy if you don’t live in the Rocky Mountains; it’s becoming more common in the south and central U.S. The Lone Star tick most commonly causes a rash, headaches, body aches and fever, but people can also develop an allergy to red meat.
Again, most bites don’t lead to infection. But the consequences if you do become infected are severe enough that you should do everything you can to lower your risk.
Preventing a bite
Ticks generally show up in April and stick around until October when temperatures start to cool off. So, during warm months, know what to do before, while and after you’re outdoors:
Know where ticks live. They hang out in grassy, brushy or wooded areas, and they love to hitch a ride when you’re walking your dog, camping, gardening or hiking in the woods. You can even get ticks walking in your own yard.
Steer clear of their favorite places by avoiding wooded and brushy areas with high grass. Walk in the center of trails. And check for ticks every 2-3 hours so you can remove them before problems set in. Wearing light-colored clothing can make ticks easier to spot.
Use an insect repellent that contains DEET. Be sure to follow product instructions and warnings.
Treat your clothing and gear with 0.5% permethrin. If you know you’re going to be in tick-prone areas, this will give you an additional layer of protection. One treatment will last several washings.
Check your clothing. As soon as you return indoors, throw your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes. This will kill any ticks you might have carried in. If you plan to wash them first, use hot water. Cold or warm water will not kill ticks.
Examine your gear and pets where ticks can also hitch a ride home.
Shower as soon as possible. If you can shower within two hours of coming indoors, you reduce your risk for tick-borne illnesses. Showering helps wash off unattached ticks and is a good time to do a tick check.
Do a full body check using a hand-held or full-length mirror. Or get someone to help you, especially your scalp.
Check out this flier from the CDC with additional tick-bite tips.
Removing a tick quick
If you remove a tick within 24 hours of it attaching to you, you reduce your chances of contracting a tick-borne illness.
There are several tick removal devices on the market (Google “tick key” or “tick remover”), but fine-tipped tweezers work well too:
Grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
Pull upward with steady pressure. Don’t twist or jerk; this can cause part of the tick to break off and stay in the skin. If this happens, don’t worry if you’re unable to remove the other part.
Thoroughly clean the bite area (and your hands) with soap and water or alcohol.
Flush the tick down the toilet. If you’re concerned about getting sick, you can save the tick to show your provider if you later experience symptoms. Place the live or dead tick in a sealed container or baggie and store it in the fridge or freezer.
If problems arise
If you do develop a rash or a fever after removing a tick, contact your health care provider. Tick-related diseases can trigger fever, headache, fatigue and muscle aches. Some also cause a telltale rash. The Rocky Mountain spotted fever rash is small, flat and pink and tends to show up 2-5 days after the bite. Lyme disease’s infamous rash looks like a bull's-eye and gradually radiates outward. It can appear anywhere from 3 to 30 days after a bite, and it usually shows up before the fever.
If a red ring shows up around a tick bite, is less than 5 centimeters, doesn’t grow any larger and disappears in a few days, that’s probably a normal allergic reaction and not a sign of tick-borne illness.
If you have any tick-related questions, call us in the ParTNers Health & Wellness Center at 615-741-1709.
Sources: health.com, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mayo Clinic