Summer is Tick season, and giving one of these nasty little critters a ride is a bad idea if you want to stay healthy. The American dog tick carries pathogens for rocky mountain spotted fever, and the blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, carries the microscopic parasite that’s responsible for Lyme disease. Just recently, deer ticks have been identified as the cause for a new illness that causes a flu-like syndrome.
It’s called Babesiosis. About 1,000 cases are reported each year, but health officials say that many people don’t even know that they’re infected with it because it’s so similar to the flu. If your immune system is weak, though, it could actually kill you. Lyme disease has a tell-tale rash, but with babesiosis, most people don’t know they’re carrying the parasite. The disease is traveling from the northeast and appeared in Wisconsin and Minnesota last summer. It seems to be making its way west.
How Do Ticks Spread Disease?
Most Lyme disease and Babesiosis is caused by the larval or juvenile stages of the deer tick. These are sometimes tough to spot because they’re not much bigger than a pinhead. Each larval stage feeds only once and very slowly, usually over several days. This gives the tick parasites plenty of time to get into your bloodstream. The larval ticks are the ones most active in summer, the adults are more active in cooler parts of the year, and are less likely to transmit disease.
Ticks don’t jumps like fleas do, they don’t fly like, well, flies, and they don’t drop from trees like spiders. The larvae like to live in leaf litter, and they grab your lower leg as you pass by. The adults might be in the shrubs, that’s where they grab on to deer, hence their name.
Many people don’t think to protect themselves outdoors from exposure to ticks and other things like poison ivy, and many wind up being sorry they didn’t. If you’re going to spend the day outdoors, you should be taking some precautions. Be careful about leaving skin exposed below your knee. I know that Cody Lundin goes around barefooted in the woods, but that’s probably not good policy for you. Wear thick socks, and consider tucking your pants into them to prevent an avenue for the tick to reach your skin. You’ll look like a WWI doughboy, but you won’t get sick. An alternative would be good high-top boots. Of course, a good bug repellant is going to improve your chances of avoiding bites, so always have some on hand. Citronella can be found naturally on plants like lemon balm, if you smell it you can tell, just rub the leaves on your skin. Soybean oil and oil of eucalyptus will also work.
Also, when you get home from your day-long hike, get yourself in the shower! Not only will you improve your popularity rating with your spouse and children, but you can also take a good look at yourself (might not be a pretty sight) to hunt for any hitchhikers. Most tick bites are painless, so they might be tricky to spot. If you took Rover along for the walk, you should consider taking a look at him too. Same thing with the kids, Lyme disease is actually more common among children. Ticks can survive warm water baths, so make sure you throw your clothes in a hot dryer for a while.
Ok, so you looked, and darned if there isn’t one of those nasty things having a meal on your somewhere. The important thing to know is that your risk of Lyme disease or other tick-spread illness increases the longer it’s feeding on you. The good news is that there is generally no transmission of disease in the first 24 hours. After 48 hours, though, you have the highest chance of infection, so it pays to remove that tick as soon as possible. This is how you do it….
Take the finest set of tweezers you have and try to grab the thing as close to your skin as you can. Pull the tick straight up; this will give you the best chance of removing it intact. The mouthparts sometimes get stuck in there, and that might cause an inflammation at the site of the bite, but it won’t increase your chances of getting Lyme disease. Afterwards, disinfect the area with Betadine, and maybe consider some antibiotic cream. I’m sure you’ve heard about other methods of tick removal, like smothering it with petroleum jelly or lighting it on fire or taping a hand grenade to it and pulling the pin, but no method is more effective that pulling it out with tweezers.
Luckily, only about 20% of deer ticks carry the Lyme disease or other parasites, so you’re probably going to be ok, even if you get bitten. But if you get a rash that sort of looks like a bulls-eye and come down with flu symptoms that just won’t go away with symptomatic relief, get to your doctor or medic. Oral antibiotics will be useful to treat early stages. Amoxicillin 500 mg 4x/day for 14 days or Doxycycline 100mg 2x/day for 14 days should work. BTW, you can get amoxicillin without a prescription in fish antibiotics, called Fish-Mox Forte. Doxycycline is available as Bird-Biotic. Google them online, you’ll find them.