Ticks: ‘Tis the Season!

It’s tick season!

I hate spiders, but ticks, somehow, seem a little creepier and a little more sinister due to their hidden hitchhiking behavior AND they carry a whole host of diseases that we refer to as “tick-borne illnesses.”    This year is shaping up to have more ticks than ever, especially in the Northeast portion of the United States.  This has been attributed to a warmer and wetter Spring.  Ticks, while creepier than spiders (in my mind) are still part of the arachnid family.  They feed on the blood of humans and animals by attaching themselves to the skin. This feeding is referred to as hematophagy.

What does this mean for you?

Ticks hang out in wooded and grassy areas: fields, shrubland, and forested regions.  When you spend time in theses areas you become the perfect feast for a tick to latch onto.  This matters because they carry diseases the we humans should avoid.

How can you avoid ticks?

The best way to avoid ticks is by being prepared when you head into the great outdoors.  Wear long pants, long sleeve shirts and tuck your pants into your socks.  Insect repellent containing DEET applied to this protective clothing and exposed skin will also help detract any tick hitchhikers.

If you find a tick on you, what should you do?

There are many stories about fancy ways to remove ticks, but the only method that ensures the entire tick is removed safely and completely is pretty basic.  Using tweezers, grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible.  Pull the tick straight back and avoid crushing it.  Crushing or squeezing the tick can push harmful bacteria from the tick into your skin.  Once the tick is removed and destroyed clean the site with alcohol.

What diseases do ticks carry?

Lyme disease is the illness most people associate with ticks.  The illness is called Lyme disease as clustering of a previously unseen illness was first noticed in Lyme, CT.  Lyme disease used to be found mainly in New England, but has spread further south and as far west as Michigan with sporadic cases noted as far west as California.  The CDC lists only 3 cases of Lyme disease contracted in CO (the last case was reported in 2015),  so this is quite rare in our great state! Lyme Disease begins with a rash that looks similar to a bulls-eye (in medicine we call this a target lesion). It is easily treated, but if not caught in the early stages, Lyme disease can lead to more serious issues and long-lasting issues.

Sufferers of Lyme disease can experience joint pain, muscle pain and even paralysis. Advanced stages of Lyme disease can cause symptoms similar to other diseases. For this reason, Lyme disease is often misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, lupus, arthritis, Crohn’s disease and a number of other neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases.

The most common illness from ticks in Colorado is aptly named, Colorado Tick Fever.  This is a flu-like illness causing fever, headaches, chills, and joint and muscle pain   skeletal pain and muscular pain. Approximately 20 cases a year are reported, but, as symptoms range from quite mild to severe, it is likely that this number is under-reported.  In its most serious forms the central nervous system can be affected causing coma and death.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is another tick borne disease. Although it less common than Lyme, it is more likely to cause a life-threatening illness (up to 20% of untreated cases can result in death).  There are approximately 3000 cases per yer in the US with 60% of these occurring in: North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri, but there have been documented cases across the US.

The bacteria, Rickettsia rickettsii is transmitted through tick bites and cause a variety of symptoms including: fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, muscle pain, lack of appetite and a rash.  Although the rash is a hallmark feature of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, it is NOT always present.  Early treatment is the best way to prevent serious complications.

Tick Paralysis

Tick paralysis is a rare disease caused by ticks. Symptoms are thought to occur when an attached tick secretes a neurotoxin through its saliva and enters the bloodstream. The paralysis is described as a flaccid, ascending paralysis (starts at the feet and works its way up).  Treatment is, very simply, removing the tick.  Once the tick is removed, paralysis should reverse over the next 24 hours.

Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI) can occur after a Lone Star tick bite.  It can cause a circular appearing rash around the bite, much like what is seen in Lyme Disease, and cause fatigue, headache and muscle aches. Fortunately, STARI does not have the long term effect s seen in Lyme Disease such as: arthritis, neurologic disease, or other chronic symptoms.

Although tick borne illnesses are not common, it is important to understand that ticks can carry a number of dangerous diseases. When you go outdoors, make sure you take precautions to help decrease your risk of exposure by wearing long pants and long sleeved shirts. Also, wear light colored clothing to help you spot a tick on your clothing. Finally, inspect yourself after you have been outdoors to ensure no ticks have attached themselves to your skin.

If you suffer from headaches, fatigue, achy muscles and joints within several weeks of suffering a tick bit you should seek evaluation by a physician.