Does it feel like ticks are everywhere lately? You might be finding them on your body, your pets, inside the house or outside, and they’re all over the media. You can’t escape news coverage of Lyme disease or tick-borne illnesses horror stories this summer.
Growing up, we always played outside and most likely throughout the summer came home with a tick. My parents would grab a pair of tweezers, remove the tick, clean the wound, and I’d go on with my day.
But now people are scared of ticks. For starters, they’re gross, but some can transfer serious illnesses. Are we truly seeing more ticks or just more news coverage?
How Do Tick-Borne Illnesses Spread?
An infectious disease doctor, Patrick Jackson, MD, agrees we’re definitely coming into contact with ticks more. Building housing developments deeper into woodland areas exposes us to them. Milder winters also allow the tick population to grow. His advice: Focus on prevention.
Preventing Tick-Borne Illnesses
Ticks live in grassy, wooded areas. If you’re going in the woods, Jackson recommends:
- Bug spray
- Light-colored clothing, so you can more easily spot a tick.
- Wear long-sleeves and pants to minimize exposed skin, then change clothes when you get home and wash it in hot water.
- Checking yourself — and pets — after being outside. For hard-to-see places, ask a friend or family member to look.
The good news is you won’t necessarily get a tick-borne illness just because it’s crawling on you. The tick has to bite you to spread the disease.
Afterward, check common areas for ticks on the legs, groin and scalp.
What Do You Do With the Tick?
After removal, you have a few options.
- You could send it to the Virginia Department of Health to help tick research.
- You can save the tick in case you get sick and want to get it tested to confirm Lyme disease. If you decide to hold on to the little pest, put it in a plastic bag and preserve it by freezing or pouring a little rubbing alcohol in the bag.
Tick-Related Myths vs. Facts
There’s a lot of bad information on the internet or from family and friends. But keep an eye out, as new guidelines on Lyme disease will be available later this year.
The best way to remove a tick is to burn it or use Vaseline or dish soap.
Myth. You notice a new freckle on your leg and while examining it, you realize it’s a tick! Don’t panic. Also, don’t burn the tick or use Vaseline or dish soap to remove it. These removal techniques can hurt you as well and cause the tick to throw up inside you. This is how tick-borne illnesses spread.
- Find a pair of sharp tweezers.
- Grasp the tick close to your skin and pull straight up. The tick is still alive so best recommendation is save it for testing by using a zip-lock bag. If not, discard the tick where it can’t bite you or a family member.
- Wash your hands and the bite with soap and water.
Afterward, you may notice itching or a red mark around the bite. This is your body’s reaction to the tick’s saliva, similar to a mosquito bite.
I can’t get Lyme disease if the tick has been on me for less than 24 hours.
Fact. You have a lower risk of developing Lyme disease or ehrlichiosis if the tick is attached for less time. However, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever exposure can happen quicker. It’s believed that the bacteria is in the midgut of an infected tick. Therefore, when a tick bites a new host it takes some time for the bacteria to migrate to the tick’s salivary glands and then to the host.
A bullseye rash around the bite is the first symptom of Lyme disease.
Myth. Only 50-80% of people with Lyme disease will notice the key bullseye rash. This circular rash or ring can be found around the bite and is warm to touch. If you notice that or these other symptoms, see your primary care provider:
- Muscle or joint aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
Your provider will most likely prescribe you doxycycline, an antibiotic that treats a wide range of bacterial infections.
Ticks can cause you to be allergic to red meat.
Fact. The alpha-gal allergy was discovered by UVA allergy researcher Thomas Platts-Mill, MD, after he became sick from eating red meat. The Lone Star tick is known for spreading this condition after biting and transmitting alpha-gal into the body. This triggers a reaction that can cause mild to severe allergic reactions to red meat.
Ticks go dormant in the winter.
Myth. We tend to see less tick activity in the winter, perhaps because more people are indoors. But you can still find a tick, especially during more mild winters.
A tick head is no longer dangerous after you remove the body.
Fact (ish). It’s true that a headless tick can’t spread illnesses. Your body will treat the head like a splinter and eventually push it out. But the bite can get infected like any foreign objects in the body. Keep an eye on it and visit your provider if it becomes infected.
Ticks can jump from trees.
Myth. This myth gives me such a fun visual, picturing a tick dive-bombing on to your scalp. But ticks don’t jump from trees. They typically like grassy areas. The only way they get higher is if they catch a ride on larger animals. A deer can walk by a tree, and a branch touches its ear so the tick latches on to the tree. Fun fact: ticks can climb. After latching on to a person’s pants they tend to climb up.
Have Severe Symptoms?
If you have severe symptoms or persistent symptoms that last longer than a couple of months, see an infectious disease specialist to discuss possible treatment options.
New tick-borne illnesses are still being discovered.
Fact. Deadly viruses such as the Bourbon virus or Powassan virus have been recently discovered. Over the last two decades, seven new tick-borne illnesses have been identified in the U.S. according to the CDC. New technology and testing are finding these new germs in ticks and patients.
Jackson believes these viruses could be deadlier because of the delay in diagnosis, patients may have a compromised immune system and there’s no specific treatment for these viruses.
Virginia is for lovers…and ticks.
Fact: Virginia has lots of grassy, wooded areas for ticks to live in and lots of wildlife for them to feast on. Plus, it’s warm for the majority of the year. So, what ticks are taking residence in Virginia?
- Black-legged ticks, which carry ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease and anaplasmosis
- Dog ticks, which carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF)
- Lonestar ticks, which are newer to the area and spreading ehrlichiosis, the alpha-gal allergy and bourbon virus
Ehrlichiosis is the most common tick-borne illness in Virginia and is easy to treat. RMSF is rare but can be very serious with complications after treatment.