As you spend more time outdoors, you should be aware of the risk of tick bites and how to prevent them. You may be surprised to learn that ticks are the leading carriers of diseases to humans in the United States, and second only to mosquitoes worldwide. Ticks require blood to live and grow and are not too picky about what they bite. Through their bites, ticks can transmit dangerous toxins or organisms to humans and pets.
So what are ticks and what do they look like?
Ticks are classified as arthropods, just like spiders. They can be a small as the period at the end of this sentence. So-called “blacklegged” ticks live in or near wooded or grassy areas and can hide in low brush. People usually come into contact with ticks during outdoor activities.
The two types of ticks to be aware of are commonly called hard ticks and soft ticks.
Just like their name implies, hard ticks have a tough back and attach and feed for hours to days (Figure 1). Soft ticks have more rounded bodies and don’t have a hard back. Soft ticks, (Figure 2) usually feed for less than one hour. Bites are generally painless and you may not even notice it. But if you do, removing a tick with tweezers may prevent further spread of toxins or parasites. Illnesses transmitted by ticks often begin days to weeks after the tick is gone. So a tick-related illness may not be suspected. If you feel ill, tell your doctor about outdoor activities in tick-infested areas.
Ticks can transmit at least 10 known diseases.
Lyme disease is probably the most commonly recognized of tick-borne diseases. The so-called “deer tick” is tiny and transmits the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Some 30,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease occurred in the U.S. in 2009, mostly from the Northeast and upper Midwest. Symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, tiredness, and a distinctive ‘bulls-eye’ skin rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to bone joints, the heart, and the nervous system. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated with a few weeks with antibiotics.
Another tick-borne illness, called babesiosis, has increased 20-fold in some parts of the Northeast and upper Midwest. About 1,000 cases are reported each year. Like Lyme disease, this parasite is carried by deer ticks. The parasite causes flu-like symptoms, so detecting it can be difficult. If you have fever and/or anemia, telling your doctor that you believe you’ve been exposed to ticks can help make a more rapid diagnosis. Once identified, babesiosis is treated with antibiotics.
Steps to prevent tick bites include:
- When hiking, avoid grassy areas and shrubs. Wear long clothing and tuck pants into socks. Apply an insect repellent to shoes and socks. Wear light-colored clothing so ticks can be easily seen and brushed off.
- Consider avoiding tick season completely by staying away from outdoor areas where ticks thrive, usually during the months of April through September in certain parts of the U.S.
- Apply DEET insect repellant to the skin. Avoid use of DEET-containing repellents on children. Carefully follow instructions and apply some repellents directly to skin and others to clothing.
- Permethrin-containing products may be applied to clothes but not to skin.
- Check yourself, others, and pets if exposed to tick areas. Check your body for ticks and shower if you can within a few hours of being in the woods, as well as tossing worn clothing in the dryer to kill any ticks that might be hiding there. Treat pets with flea and tick repellents.
Useful Web sites: