The incidence of tick-borne disease in the United States has risen rapidly, pushing researchers and doctors to look closer at the situation and how to prevent the number from climbing higher.
A look at the numbers
During a 12-year period, the number of reported cases of tick-borne disease has more than doubled, according to a report issued in May 2018 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2004, the CDC reported 22,527 reported cases of tick-borne disease, and that number jumped to 48,610 in 2016.
Researchers and clinicians not only anticipate that the number will continue to climb, but the CDC added that the number of cases is considerably underestimated. Factors include surveillance and reporting limitations, the rise of tick populations in areas that were once too cold for them to survive, and a lack of new vaccines to prevent the illnesses.
Quick facts about ticks
Ticks live in brush and leaves in grassy, wooded areas, although as deer populations are displaced, more and more people are being exposed in their own backyards. Using their senses to detect a new host’s body odor and other scents, ticks survive by drinking the blood of a variety of animals. Commonly found on deer and mice, ticks also target humans and domestic animals.
As arachnids, they are more closely related to spiders, lacking the ability to fly or jump. Once a tick finds a host, most species can get in the “questing” positions, which means they hold onto the top of grass blades or shrubs with their back sets of legs, while they outstretch their front legs to nuzzle up to their hosts.
Though ticks thrive during the warmer months, typically between April and September, exposure occurs all year. Ticks are small, many the size of a lentil, and others as small as the head of a pin. They can be difficult to spot.
Types of tick-borne infections
Ticks may carry bacteria, viruses, or parasites that they transmit to animals and humans when they bite. The most common tick-borne diseases in the United States include
- Lyme disease
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever
- Southern tick-associated rash illness
- Tick-borne relapsing fever
Lyme disease is the most commonly reported tick-borne disease in the United States. The CDC reported more than 42,743 confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease in 2017.
In recent years, other tick-borne diseases also have been discovered in the United States, including
- Q fever
- Colorado tick fever
- Powassan virus (POWV)
The only known North American tick-borne encephalitis-causing disease, POWV often causes an illness with a fever that also can result in progressive, severe neurological conditions. Between 10% and 15% of POWV cases result in death. Between 50% and 70% of survivors suffer long-term effects from the disease.
Symptoms of tick-borne illnesses
Tick-borne illnesses often are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed because they take on the symptoms of many other diseases; some people experience no symptoms. When symptoms are present, they resemble flu, with fever, chills, fatigue, and muscle aches and pains most common. The onset and severity of symptoms vary.
Distinctive rashes often are the first signs of Lyme disease, southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI), Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), ehrlichiosis, and tularemia. Both a Lyme and STARI infection may result in a lesion described as a bullseye rash. This rash occurs in up to 80% of those infected with Lyme disease.
The rash associated with Rocky Mountain spotted fever varies dramatically from person to person in appearance, location, and time of onset. About 10% of those infected experience no rash at all.
With tularemia, a skin ulcer appears where the tick entered the body, as well as swelling lymph glands. About 30% of adults and up to 60% of children get a rash with ehrlichiosis that often appears after a fever.
Here are some simple ways to prevent ticks
A well-maintained yard and lawn may curb tick populations. Here are some simple ways to prevent ticks.
- Mow tall grass and remove brush
- Remove leaf litter
- Remove trash and other debris, which can attract tick-loving rodents
- Discourage deer activity by putting up a fence and plant deer-deterring flowers, like lavender
Easy ways to protect against tick bites
When spending time outdoors, wear hats and light-colored clothing to make it easier to detect ticks. Wearing long-sleeved shirts and tucking pants into boots or socks provide even better protection.
Also, use repellents that contain no less than 20% DEET on exposed skin and clothing. Re-apply according to the product’s instructions.
Those who work outside or spend extended periods outdoors in tick-heavy areas should spray clothing with the insecticide, permethrin. It can be sprayed on clothing, shoes, and socks, but not on skin.
What to do after a day outside
Do a full body check
After spending any time outdoors, individuals should perform a full body check. Using a hand mirror makes it easier to check harder-to-see areas, like:
- In and around the ears
- Inside the belly button and around the waist
- Behind the knees
- Between the legs
Shower within two hours of being outside
Showering provides another opportunity to check the body and to wash away any unattached ticks. Research has shown that showering within a couple of hours may reduce the risk of getting a vector-borne disease.
Check clothes and gear
Clothes, shoes, and bags must be examined.
Tumbling unsoiled clothes in a dryer at a high setting for 10 minutes will kill ticks. Wash dirty clothes in hot water before drying them. Cold or warm water will not kill them.
Look over pets
Dogs and cats can bring ticks indoors where they can attach to people. Animals can also be infected with tick-borne diseases; thoroughly examine pets for ticks.
How to remove a tick
Once a tick is found, it should be removed immediately with a tick removal tool or fine-tipped tweezers. Steady, even pressure should be used to pull the tick up and away from the skin. Twisting or pulling out the tick without a tight grasp may leave parts inside. If attempts to remove the remaining parts fail, the area should be left alone to heal.
Care after tick removal
Wash the bite area with soap and water or apply rubbing alcohol. The person who removed the tick should also wash their hands thoroughly or apply rubbing alcohol.
Disposing of a tick
The proper ways to dispose of a live tick include
- Putting it in rubbing alcohol
- Sealing it up in a plastic bag or container
- Folding it tightly into a piece of tape or taping it to a piece of paper
- Flushing it down the toilet
After removal, never try to kill a tick by squeezing it. Anything that seeps from the infected tick can be passed on to the person.
What to do after a tick bite
If you suspect that you’ve been bitten by a tick, notice a bulls-eye rash or any other unusual rashes, or have flu-like symptoms, seek prompt medical attention.
Many tick-borne illnesses are treatable with antibiotics. Late detection and untreated infections may result in hospitalization and more severe health complications, like brain inflammation, heart problems, seizures, severe bleeding, long-term neurological problems, or death.
With the rise in the numbers of tick-borne illnesses, the fact that some experience no symptoms, and others may not be in tune with signs of these diseases, getting tested may be the best course of action.
Additional information available
Individuals who want to learn additional ways to protect themselves and their families from tick-borne illnesses should visit TickTesting.com and order a free tick removal tool.