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5 Reasons to Fear Ticks

Summer is their season, and it’s getting harder to avoid them

Black Legged Tick
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

It’s that time of year to put a bug in your ear about a summertime pest that can foil the fun. Tick season is in full swing, and avoiding the bloodsuckers and their bites is getting increasingly difficult.

That’s because the tick population is booming in many areas of the country due to a number of factors, including land development, patterns in the movement of their prey and, possibly, climate change. As a result, tickborne diseases are also on the rise. In fact, the number of reported cases of tickborne disease more than doubled between 2004 and 2016, federal data show, and cases continue to swell.

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Here are five things you need to know about ticks, plus tips to stay safe this summer.

1. Not just Lyme: Ticks transmit other serious diseases.

A Vaccine for Lyme Disease? 

The U.S. did have a vaccine available for Lyme disease, but that is no longer the case. The manufacturer discontinued the shot in 2002, claiming insufficient consumer demand. Clinical trials for new Lyme disease vaccines are underway.  

Ticks are often associated with Lyme disease, which is the most common type of a bacterial infection transmitted by the tiny spider-like creatures. But they can pass on a number of other diseases as well, some of which can be lethal.

For example, the same tick that spreads Lyme (the black-legged tick, or deer tick) also transmits babesia, a parasite that causes a malaria-like illness (babesiosis) that can range from asymptomatic to life-threatening, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “And there’s been an observable uptake in babesia,” says Douglas Norris, a professor in the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The black-legged tick also carries a bacteria called anaplasmosis that can cause flulike illness, “and we’ve seen an increase in those cases,” Norris adds.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever is another tickborne disease that pops up in the Eastern, Central and Western United States and has become more common in certain areas of Arizona over the past several years, the CDC notes. And tickborne viruses like Powassan virus — which can inflict long-term neurological complications — are increasing, too, although Powassan is still relatively rare. According to the National Institutes of Health, only 20 cases of Powassan infection were reported in the U.S. before 2006; 99 were reported between 2006 and 2016. 

2. Some of these diseases are hard to diagnose.     

Most cases of Lyme disease produce a surefire sign of infection: a bull’s-eye rash. Other tickborne illnesses, however, can be harder to diagnose — especially if you never saw the tick — because they tend to bring on a series of “very familiar” flulike symptoms that can easily be confused with other diseases, Norris says.

If you develop fever, chills, aches and pains and recently spent a lot of time outside, ask your doctor about whether your symptoms may be due to a tick bite. Some bites will trigger a mild rash, which could be a clue that your symptoms stem from a tick.

The majority of tickborne diseases are caused by bacteria and can be treated with antibiotics. If you know you were bitten by a tick and develop flulike symptoms within a few weeks of your bite, tell you doctor when the bite occurred and, if you can, the type of tick that bit you, since different tickborne diseases are treated with different medicines.

3. Most people don’t know what tick bit them.

To that point, most people aren’t able to distinguish between different types of ticks.

Black-Legged Tick
Black-Legged Tick
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

“People think of ticks in a generic way,” says Thomas Mather, a tick expert and director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Diseases. But it’s important to know that different ticks transmit different germs. “So you need to really be able to distinguish between the types of ticks, to know what type of germ you might get.”

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Dog Tick
Dog Tick
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The three most common ticks in the U.S. are:

  • The black-legged (or deer) tick
  • The lone star tick
  • The dog tick (American dog tick and brown dog tick)

The black-legged tick, which is found across the eastern United States, transmits Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, Powassan virus disease, babesiosis and a form of relapsing fever, according to the CDC. Also roaming the eastern part of the country is the lone star tick, which carries diseases including ehrlichiosis, tularemia, Heartland virus disease, Bourbon virus disease and Southern tick-associated rash illness.

Lone Star Tick
Lone Star Tick
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Dog ticks transmit tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The American dog tick is widely distributed east of the Rocky Mountains and also pops up on the Pacific Coast; the brown dog tick is global, according to the CDC.

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The key to identifying your tick is to look at the back, not the belly, Mather explains. For example, black-legged ticks have a dark teardrop-like shape on their back (and females tend to have a red-orange body), whereas the female lone star tick has a white dot on her back. Dog ticks tend to be mostly brown.

If you need help identifying a tick — especially since there are several varieties crawling around the country — the University of Rhode Island’s TickSpotter can help. The free service allows people to upload a photo of their tick and information on where they were when the bite occurred. Confirmation on the type of tick and the risk involved with the bite is typically sent within 24 hours.

The CDC also has a tick-identifier tool. 

4. People don’t remove ticks properly.

If you find a tick on your body, forget any folk remedies that claim to make removal easier — it’s no time for nail polish, petroleum jelly or heat. Just grab a pair of pointy tweezers and follow these steps.

  1. Get as close as possible to the surface of the skin and grasp the tick with the tweezers.
  2. Pull upward, being careful not to twist or jerk the tick. (If the tick’s mouth parts break off and stay in the skin, go back and remove them with the tweezers, as well.)
  3. Clean the bite with rubbing alcohol or soap and water after removing the tick.
  4. Put the tick into a sealed bag or container so you can identify what type bit you.

“You don’t want to just toss the tick out, because we’ve already talked about how different ticks transmit different germs and the importance of knowing what kind of tick [bit you] to help your doctor out,” Mather says.

After the tick is out, watch for symptoms (rash, fever, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain) for 30 days, the CDC says. If any develop, call your doctor.

5. A tick bite can cause a meat allergy.

Along with possibly getting sick as a result of a tick’s feasting on your body, you could, if bitten by the lone star variety, potentially develop an allergy to red meat (also known as alpha-gal syndrome). This is due to a type of sugar molecule, called alpha-gal, that’s transmitted during the tick’s mealtime. In some people, this molecule triggers an immune response that develops into a red-meat allergy. Symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome range from mild, like heartburn or an upset stomach after a meal, to more severe, like anaphylaxis.

The allergy may lessen or disappear over time, experts say. “Most people say it kind of goes away if you stop eating red meat for a while,” Mather adds.

The CDC notes that although this allergy is most often associated with the lone star tick, “other tick species have been connected with the development of alpha-gal syndrome in other countries.”

Tick tips: Stay safe this summer

You can get a tick bite any time of year, but the risk goes up in the warmer months, when the critters are most active. Here’s how you can avoid them and any germs they carry.

  • Know where they go: Ticks tend to stick to grasses, bushes and low shrubs (not trees — and they can’t fly or jump). So your defense should start from the ground up, Mather advises. Long pants can protect your legs, and tucking your pants into your socks or boots makes it more challenging for ticks to crawl in. (Be sure to tuck your shirt into your pants, too.)
  • If you’re hiking, stick to the center of the path, where you’re less likely to come in contact with overgrown vegetation that could be housing ticks.
  • Treat your clothing. Some people opt to treat their clothing, boots and camping gear (or send articles away to get treated) with products containing 0.5 percent permethrin. The CDC has tips on how to safely use this insecticide. You can also purchase clothes that have already been treated with the product.
  • Use an Environmental Protection Agency–registered insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD) or 2-undecanone.
  • Do a tick check. When you come inside, check for these pests. Be sure to look in hidden places, such as under the arms, behind the knees and in back of the ears.
  • Throw the clothes you were wearing into the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes, to kill any ticks that may be on your clothing.
  • Don’t shy away from a shower. Showering within two hours of coming indoors has been shown to reduce the risk of getting Lyme disease and may be effective in lowering the risk of other tickborne diseases, the CDC says.
  • If you have dogs, ask your vet about tick-prevention products. Dogs are especially susceptible to ticks and can transfer them to their owners.
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“We are sharing our environment with ticks, and as tick numbers come up and those encounters become more frequent, there is risk,” Norris says. “Just make sure that you’re protecting yourself, however you choose to do that.”

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