Tick Bites and the Risk of Serious Infections
Don’t let their small size and inconspicuous nature fool you: Ticks can give you or your pet harmful infectious diseases, including Lyme disease. And ticks that carry disease are growing in number and covering a wider geographical area as our climate changes, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prompting concern over “super ticks.”
“Thousands of Americans get tickborne diseases every year, and diagnosis can be tricky,” says Everyday Health partner Sanjay Gupta, MD, associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital and assistant professor or neurosurgery at Emory University in Atlanta. “It’s important to know how to prevent and spot these diseases, especially if you and your family are planning outdoor activities in spring and summer,” he says.
Ticks of concern in the United States include deer, brown dog, American dog, lone star, Rocky Mountain wood, Gulf Coast, and western black-legged ticks, according to the CDC. Not only can these blood-sucking bugs cause Lyme disease, but they’re also responsible for infections like Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and tick paralysis.
If you’ve been bitten by a tick and it’s embedded in your skin, the best way to remove it is with fine-tip tweezers. Get the tweezers as close as possible to your skin, pull the tick steadily upward to remove its body (including its mouth parts), and wash the bite and your hands well. Even if you don’t see a tick, call your doctor if you develop a rash, fever, chills, or headache after you’ve been in an area that could have ticks.
Deer Ticks and Lyme Disease
Also called black-legged ticks, deer ticks are common in woods and grassy areas of the Northeast and northern United States. Reddish-brown adults like the one shown here are only one-eighth of an inch long. Tiny immature ticks that are about the size of a poppy seed also bite.
Deer ticks infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi can cause Lyme disease in people, dogs, and cats. You might not even notice the tick or its bite. But if you do, remove the tick within 48 hours to limit your chances of getting Lyme disease. For some people who have Lyme disease, the first symptom is often a rash that may look like a bull’s-eye, such as the one shown above at the site of a tick bite. The rash may appear within one or two weeks — but not everyone gets or notices the rash, in part because it doesn’t itch. Other signs include flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, headaches, aches, and swollen lymph nodes.
If you have any of these symptoms and think you may have been bitten by a tick, see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment, as Lyme disease can often be cured. If untreated, long-term infection can cause headaches, stiffness, arthritis, and an irregular heart beat.
To prevent bites, wear light-colored clothing that covers you when you’re outside so that you can see ticks and remove them. If you’re walking on a trail, stay in the center so that you’re not touching plants where ticks hide. When camping, prevent tick bites by using a safe insect repellent.
Brown Dog Ticks and Pet Diseases
This type of dog tick is found nearly everywhere in the United States — and it likes dogs of every variety, but rarely bites people. Adult brown dog ticks are about the size and color of the deer tick. The bites of brown dog ticks can be extremely dangerous to your pet: They can cause diseases like ehrlichiosis, babesiosis (a parasite infection of the blood), and bartonellosis. Symptoms of a tickborne disease in your dog may include fever, depression, weight loss, and lameness, according to the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation. Talk to your vet about the warning signs of tickborne infections.
Brown dog ticks can live in your house and in your dog’s kennel. If your dog has been outside in a kennel or the backyard, check often and thoroughly for ticks. Brown dog ticks hide, so make sure to look under rugs, behind draperies, under radiators, and in cracks if you think you have an infestation. The best way to get rid of them is to hire an exterminator. Remove them in the same way you would from a person: Use fine-tipped tweezers and grab the tick as close to its mouth as you can. Be sure to dispose of the tick, and wash the bite and your hands well.
American Dog Ticks and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Also called the wood tick, the American dog tick feeds on people, dogs, and other animals spreading infectious disease. This tick seeks out different hosts as it grows: mice and other rodents in its early stages, and people and pets in its adulthood. The full-grown ticks are reddish-brown and about one-half inch long. The American dog tick’s geographical range extends across the United States.
The bite of this tick can lead to Rocky Mountain spotted fever, caused by the bacteriaRickettsia rickettsii, in both people and pets. These ticks also spread the bacterial diseases tularemia, ehrlichiosis, and tick paralysis. If you’re bitten, you may see redness around the bite. Rocky Mountain spotted fever symptoms include fever, headache, and body aches that come on suddenly within 3 to 12 days of the bite. Two or three days after the fever begins, look for a spotty rash that starts on your ankles and wrists and spreads from there. Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be fatal if treatment is delayed, according to the CDC, but timely treatment with the antibiotic doxycycline is usually effective. Be sure to see your doctor early if you have been exposed to ticks and have any of these symptoms.
Lone Star Ticks and Tularemia
Found from west-central and east-central Texas up to the coast of Maine, lone star ticks are brown or tan, and about one-third of an inch long. Females have a distinctive white spot on their backs, while males have scattered spots or lines outlining their bodies. They can bite at any stage of their three-year lifecycle.
Lone star ticks can spread ehrlichiosis and tularemia, notes the CDC. Tularemia symptoms include skin rash or ulcer and a high fever. The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but if left untreated, it can be fatal. Lone star tick bites can also transmit southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI), which shares some Lyme disease symptoms. Signs of STARI include a bull’s-eye rash at the bite site that often appears within a few days of the bite and can expand to three inches across. Though STARI symptoms include body aches, fever, and fatigue just as Lyme disease does, STARI doesn’t carry the long-term effects of Lyme.
More recently, according to a 2013 report in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, lone star ticks have transmitted the rare Heartland virus. Infection causes fever, headaches, and low platelet and white blood cell counts. There is no treatment
Rocky Mountain Wood Ticks and Colorado Tick Fever
The mocha-colored Rocky Mountain wood tick lives in the northwestern United States and in Canada. Young Rocky Mountain wood ticks bite small rodents; adult ticks are more likely to latch onto deer, dogs, livestock, and people. Before going on a walk in the woods or in a grassy area near the woods, use a safe insect repellent that contains DEET to prevent tick bites. The CDC’s DEET information page shows which formulations are okay to spray directly on your skin.
The Rocky Mountain wood tick’s bite can transmit diseases including a virus that causes Colorado tick fever, as well as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tick paralysis, and tularemia. Colorado tick fever symptoms resemble the flu: They leave you tired, achy, and with chills, according to the CDC. The illness is usually short-lived, but there is no treatment. In rare cases, complications can develop, including hepatitis and pneumonia.
Gulf Coast Ticks and Spotted Fever
The pecan-colored Gulf Coast tick lives along the coast in the southern United States and as far inland as Oklahoma. The Gulf Coast tick can transmit the bacteria Rickettsia parkeri, which causes a spotted fever that’s a milder type of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Signs of this infection may appear anywhere from 2 to 10 days after the bite. The bite itself might look like a pimple and could be followed by a headache, an overall rash, and fever. Treatment to clear up the infection with antibiotics is usually effective.
To avoid the Gulf Coast tick while enjoying the outdoors, cover up with long sleeves and pants, and try using the repellent permethrin on your clothing. Even when you use an insect repellent, always do a thorough body and clothes check for ticks after spending time outdoors.
Western Black-legged Ticks and Anaplasmosis
This black and brown tick lives in the western United States and British Columbia. As a young tick, it prefers small rodents and lizards. As an adult, the western black-legged tick affects humans, pets, deer, and other large mammals. It’s also a carrier of Lyme disease and anaplasmosis, which has symptoms similar to the flu: fever, headache, and chills. The western black-legged tick isn’t as subtle as some others: When you’re bitten, you’ll know it. The bite generally hurts, and it’s slow to heal.
To reduce your chance of getting Lyme disease or anaplasmosis from a western black-legged tick bite, quickly remove any embedded ticks. Remember to use tweezers, not folk remedies such as matches, nail polish, or petroleum jelly. You need to get the whole tick out, and using tweezers is the best way. Save the tick so your doctor can identify it, recommends the CDC, as different ticks carry different diseases.