Everything you need to know about ticks and how to prevent them from harming you and your loved ones.
This is all very scary information, to be sure, but the comforting news is that for most tick-borne diseases, you have at least 24 hours to find and remove the tick before it can transmit an infection.
Many folks don’t even recall getting bitten because ticks are only the size of poppy seeds in their nymph stage (adult ticks are the size of apple seeds). So be sure to perform a thorough tick check of yourself and your kids, grandkids and pets whenever you come in from outside.
If you find an attached tick, use tweezers to grasp it as close to the skin as possible and gently pull the tick away from your skin. Don’t twist or jerk – just a slow, steady pull. Place the tick in a sealed plastic bag for identification. Label it with the date and attachment site. Wash the bite area, your hands and tweezers with a disinfectant.
If you experience any symptoms, consult your physician. If you want the tick tested, check with your doctor or local county health office for the names of laboratories performing tick-testing services.
Once you’ve been bitten by an infected tick, symptoms of a tick-borne disease may take up to a month to appear. And, since so many symptoms are similar to those caused by less severe diseases, many people don’t receive prompt treatment. Delaying treatment for certain diseases, such as anaplasmosis, can lead to serious complications. Disease diagnoses are usually attained through blood tests.
Most tick-borne diseases can be treated with antibiotics, but early diagnosis and treatment are key to a full recovery. Seek immediate medical attention if you’ve been bitten and think you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of the following diseases:
Lyme disease – Initial symptoms may include headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain and a reddish “bull’s-eye” rash at the site of the tick bite (and possibly elsewhere). Not all patients will have all symptoms. For example, the rash never appears on some people. Without timely treatment, those infected can develop facial palsy (loss of muscle tone), heart palpitations and dizziness, and severe joint pain.
Babesiosis – This disease can be fatal, particularly for the elderly, those with weak immune systems, and those with serious health conditions such as liver or kidney disease. The bacteria associated with Babesiosis destroy red blood cells and can cause anemia and jaundice. Occurring mainly in the upper Midwest and Northeast, patients may develop flu-like symptoms and chills.
Anaplasmosis – The highest incidence of this disease is reported among people over 65 years old. With flu-like symptoms, it’s commonly confused with influenza. If not treated correctly, it can be fatal.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever – Early signs of this potentially fatal disease include fever, nausea and severe headache. Later, an infected person may experience a rash, abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Tularemia – Symptoms include skin ulcers, inflamed lymph nodes and fever.
Ehrlichiosis – Influenza-like symptoms and confusion can occur with this disease.
Tick-proofing your cabin and the surrounding property generally starts with eliminating potential tick habitats. Ticks thrive in moist, shady areas, so try these tactics to reduce their threat:
Clear trails, minimizing leaf litter and overgrown grasses. Teach your dogs to stay on these paths.
Mow lawn areas frequently.
Trim trees to allow more sunlight.
Stack firewood neatly on a platform in a dry, sunny place.
Add a strip of gravel between your lawn and wooded areas to discourage tick migration.
Keep garbage that might attract wild animals stored away from your cabin.
Deer are the main food source for adult ticks. Remove plants that attract deer, or install a fence to keep them out of your yard.
Also, use the following methods to deter ticks:
Tuck long pants into socks so ticks can’t crawl inside.
After working or playing in tick-prone areas, strip clothing off and throw it in the dryer for 10 minutes. Ticks are very sensitive to dryness; hot water won’t kill them, but hot, dry air will.
Plant garlic, rose geranium, citronella and rosemary. These plants emit essential oils proven to repel insects.
Apply a permethrin perimeter spray treatment around your cabin and yard boundary. The chemicals won’t leach through the soil; they are degraded within the top couple inches of the soil surface. However, don’t apply it around bodies of water; it’s toxic to freshwater fish.
Disease-free ticks often become infected when they feed on common field mice. Remove bird feeders that attract rodents. Place traps or Damminix Tick Tubes near stone walls and wood piles. Tick Tubes are stuffed with cotton nesting material that’s been saturated with permethrin. When ticks bite a mouse that has used the treated nesting material, they become exposed to the permethrin and die.
There are many products on the market for repelling ticks. Let’s break them down according to their active ingredients:
DEET: This is the most common and effective ingredient used in insect repellents. To repel ticks, a product must be at least 20% DEET; however, many physicians recommend a formula of no more than 10% on kids. Though it’s considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some studies have shown various health concerns with long-term use.
PICARIDIN: This chemical offers protection comparable to DEET, but it’s considered safer. One added advantage: It’s more effective than DEET on biting flies.
PERMETHRIN: Used as an area repellent, permethrin can also be applied to clothing but not directly to skin. Wait for the fabric to dry before wearing.
BIOPESTICIDES: These are derived from natural ingredients (plants, minerals, etc.), but the duration of effectiveness varies. Common examples include oils of citronella, cedar, lemon eucalyptus and geranium. Some folks experience skin or eye irritation with use, but they’re still considered safer than most chemical pesticides.
Apply repellents according to the label directions. Avoid applying to children’s hands since they often put them in their mouths.
Also, remember that family pets can suffer from tick-borne diseases and carry infected ticks into the cabin. Ask your veterinarian about the best tick-control products for your pets.
Tell your story
Discover, a magazine that reports on the latest in science and technology, has a special section about tick-borne illness and tick identification on its website. There is also an interactive map on which you can record your own personal encounter with an infected tick and see a disease’s prevalence in North America. Click here to learn more.
Q: I've heard that ticks can carry Lyme disease, but are there other diseases they can spread that I should be aware of? Also, do different kinds of ticks carry different diseases? How can I reduce my exposure to ticks while at my cabin?
– Cassie, via email
A: There are many different varieties of ticks and, unfortunately, some of them have the potential to carry certain diseases. Not all ticks carry bacteria that cause disease. Among blacklegged ticks (aka deer ticks), for example, it is estimated that 20% of nymphs and 50% of adults are infected with Lyme disease.
Many people are aware that some ticks can transmit Lyme disease, but there are a number of other potentially serious diseases they can carry as well. It’s important to know which ticks are most common in your cabin region and the types of diseases they can carry.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also note that there are numerous other varieties of ticks that can transmit less common diseases:
Gulf coast ticks, found along the Gulf Coast, can carry American tick bite fever (aka Rickettsia parkeri infection).
Cayenne ticks, found in the southern U.S., can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF).
Brown dog ticks, found throughout the U.S., can also carry RMSF.
Pacific coast ticks, found in northern California, can transmit a newly recog-nized disease similar to a spotted fever.