A Little Preparation Can Prevent a Lot of Pain.
There are very few things in this world that actually bother me, but ticks are one of them. There is just something about them that gives me the creeps.
Unfortunately, you can’t totally avoid ticks unless you seal yourself in a plastic-wrapped building and never come out. Because that will never happen, our best defense against ticks is to understand how to prevent getting bitten and what to do if that doesn’t work.
Why Worry About Ticks?
Ticks have always been around, so why the great concern now? Simply put: Ticks carry diseases that can, at the least, make you sick and, at the worst, kill you. Illnesses such as Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Powassan encephalitis, tick paralysis and tularemia are all carried by ticks.
POWASSAN ENCEPHALITIS IS ANOTHER DISEASE CARRIED BY THE BLACKLEGGED TICK, AND IT TAKES FROM ONE TO FOUR WEEKS FOR THE ONSET OF THE ILLNESS. APPROXIMATELY 10 PERCENT OF THESE CASES ARE FATAL.
Some of these diseases are regional; some are common everywhere. Here is a brief look at each of them.
Lyme disease is, by far, the most common of all the tick-borne diseases. This disease is primarily carried by the adult blacklegged, or deer, tick. Symptoms in humans usually appear three to 30 days after being infected, starting with the characteristic red “bullseye” rash around the site of the bite.
Other symptoms include fatigue, fever, headaches and muscle pain. People with this disease are treated with antibiotics. Early treatment usually results in rapid and complete recovery. If left untreated, Lyme disease can be fatal.
In 2015, 95 percent of reported cases occurred from Virginia through the Northeast,
Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
This disease is transmitted by the Lone Star tick. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and muscle aches and appear five to 10 days after being bitten by an infected tick. This disease can also affect horses and dogs. The typical treatment is with the antibiotic doxycycline.
Ehrlichiosis is most common in the southeastern and south-central region of the United States, with Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma accounting for about 30 percent of reported cases.
This is a relatively new tick-borne disease. It is believed that the blacklegged tick is the main carrier. The number and combination of symptoms vary with the patient but include headache, chills, fever, muscle pain, malaise, cough, nausea/abdominal pain, confusion and sometimes a rash. These can occur one to two weeks after being bitten.
The number of reported anaplasmosis cases has been on the rise. In 2010, the highest reported occurrences happened in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
This is a disease that seems to affect humans only. It attacks the red blood cells and is similar to malaria. It is transmitted primarily by the blacklegged tick nymph, although adult ticks can also carry it. Most cases seem to occur in the summer months in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
TICKS ARE “VECTORS,” MEANING THAT THEY CARRY THE DISEASE FROM ONE POINT TO ANOTHER. IN THIS CASE, THE TRUE CARRIERS OF THE DISEASES ARE MAINLY RODENTS.
Some people display symptoms such as fever, chills, sweats, nausea, head and body aches, fatigue and loss of appetite. These symptoms seem to be more severe in humans with suppressed immune systems.
Babesiosis can be severe and even cause death to those in certain high-risk groups. The onset of symptoms can occur weeks to months after being bitten.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
This disease is carried by the American dog tick and, to a lesser extent, the brown dog tick. It is very common in the western part of the United States, although Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is also common in southeastern and central states.
Symptoms include headaches, backaches, fever, nausea and vomiting, stomach and muscle pain, lack of appetite and a rash. They usually occur two to 10 days after being bitten. According to Dr. Alan Eaton of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, prompt treatment is important, because 15 to 20 percent of untreated cases result in death.
Although fairly rare, this disease is sometimes fatal. Unlike most tick-borne diseases, which are bacterial and can be effectively treated with antibiotics, this disease is viral. As with most viruses, there is no cure, so all that can be done is to treat the symptoms.
Powassan encephalitis is another disease carried by the blacklegged tick, and it takes from one to four weeks for the onset of the illness. Approximately 10 percent of these cases are fatal. Many people who become infected do not develop symptoms.
Powassan encephalitis was first described in Powassan, Ontario. The highest number of reported cases occur in Minnesota, New York and Wisconsin.
Any rabbit and squirrel hunter knows about this disease. What many don’t know is that besides getting tularemia by improper care and skinning of your catch, it can also be transmitted by ticks—namely, the American dog tick and the Lone Star tick.
Symptoms vary, depending on how the bacteria enter the body, but can include ulcers around the bite site, fever and swelling of the lymph nodes. Tularemia can be treated with antibiotics.
TICKS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE, AND WE WILL NEVER GET RID OF THEM.
This disease is common throughout the United States, especially in the center of the country, as well as in Canada.
This disease occurs in both humans and dogs. It is caused by an infected American dog tick. Most commonly, the tick bites at the hairline. The toxin from the bite causes difficulty in moving or controlling the arms and legs. Once the tick has been located and removed, symptoms go away in a couple of hours.
This disease occurs throughout the United States, but it is more frequent in the Southeast and the Northwest.
How Do Ticks Get These Diseases?
No tick is born with any of these diseases. Ticks are “vectors,” meaning that they carry the disease from one point to another. In this case, the true carriers of the diseases are mainly rodents (mice, chipmunks, squirrels and others). These animals are called “hosts.”
SIMPLY PUT: TICKS CARRY DISEASES THAT CAN, AT THE LEAST, MAKE YOU SICK AND, AT THE WORST, KILL YOU.
Under normal circumstances, humans will not catch anything directly from the host (the exception is tularemia, which is often transmitted after small game is killed and cleaned). Blood-to-blood contact must be made.
This is where the tick comes in: Once the tick feeds on the host animal, it picks up the disease and then spreads it to the next animal it bites, which could be a human or a dog.
According to Dr. Eaton, there are two types of ticks—hard and soft. Most of the ticks that bite humans and carry diseases are hard ticks. Here are the ticks most commonly encountered:
American Dog Tick: This is a very common tick. Nymphs (ticks in the third of four life stages) often feed on rodents, while the adult ticks wait on shrubs and in tall grass, where they will attach themselves to people, deer and dogs passing through. Once attached, the tick can feed for several days before dropping off.
Brown Dog Tick: Unlike the American dog tick, the brown dog tick is a greater cause for concern for pets and livestock than it is for people. This tick is found mainly in areas in which many animals are kept, such as kennels, stables, zoos and barns.
Blacklegged Tick: This tick gets the most attention—and rightfully so. This species is the vector for most of the tick-borne diseases that affect humans. They are also commonly called “deer ticks” due to the numbers of them found on deer brought in by hunters. Like most ticks, blacklegged ticks start off by feeding on small animals. Once they achieve their adult stage, they readily feed on larger animals such as deer, dogs and humans.
Why the Increase in Tick-Borne Diseases?
Ticks have always been here and always will be, but we humans have created many of the problems we face with them. Tick larvae and nymphs feed mainly on rodents such as mice and chipmunks. The more rodents, the more ticks. The more ticks, the more chances of humans coming into contact with them. It is just simple math.
Where there is human development, there are more rodents. Do you remember learning about the Black Death from your 14th-century European history classes? That plague was caused by fleas carried by rats to high-density urban areas. The same methodology is true for ticks and the diseases they carry.
UNFORTUNATELY, YOU CAN’T TOTALLY AVOID TICKS UNLESS YOU SEAL YOURSELF IN A PLASTIC-WRAPPED BUILDING AND NEVER COME OUT.
Predators are nature’s way of keeping rodents in check, but we have severely limited the numbers of predators we allow near us. With no natural check, rodent numbers increase, and, with more rodents come more ticks. It is a vicious cycle—and humans are part of it.
Defending Ourselves Against Ticks
When it comes to ticks, the best offense is a good defense, and common sense goes a long way toward keeping you safe from them. Here are some things you can do to reduce your chances of being a tick target:
Avoid prime tick habitat: Areas of tall grass and brush are prime tick infestation areas. Staying away from these areas will reduce your risk, although it will not eliminate it.
Dress for success: If you spend time in tick-prone areas, make sure you dress properly. Wear good shoes that provide total coverage of your feet. Don’t wear sandals, open shoes or go barefoot.
WHEN IT COMES TO TICKS, THE BEST OFFENSE IS A GOOD DEFENSE, AND COMMON SENSE GOES A LONG WAY TOWARD KEEPING YOU SAFE FROM THEM.
I like to wear rubber boots that go up over my calf when in tick country. The ticks have a hard time getting a hold on the rubber boots. If you don’t have rubber boots, make sure you wear long pants; tuck the cuffs into your socks.
This coverage helps keep the ticks on your clothes and off your skin. Wear long-sleeved shirts, and tuck your shirt in at the waist. Remember, it is much easier to remove ticks from your clothing than it is to remove them after they have bitten you.
Repellents: When using repellents, your first line of defense is to treat your clothing. While topical repellents do work on clothing, repellents with permethrin are made specifically for use on clothing and are good protection from ticks. Not only does permethrin repel ticks, it has also been proven to kill them.
Permethrin repellents should never be used on your skin. Spray your clothing, car seats and even dog bedding. Allow it to dry for at least an hour before you or your pet come in contact with it (see the sidebar below).
There are almost as many concerns about repellents as there are repellents. Many can be applied to your skin, including some that are nontoxic, all-natural products. Then, there are those with chemical components, DEET being the most common. It is highly effective.
However, with concerns about potential health risks related to the use of DEET, there is a great deal of debate over it. This means you have to weigh the benefit of not getting Lyme disease or some other tick-borne disease against potentially having health issues related to DEET.
Another concern with higher concentrations of DEET is that it can also degrade some plastics, such as watch straps, eyewear frames, camera housings and some components of your fishing gear and firearms.
Another option is called Picaridin. This product does not contain DEET. It is very effective and will not harm your gear, making it my favorite. Sawyer Products makes a Picaridin lotion, which provides up to 14 hours of protection, as well as a spray that lasts as long as 12 hours.
You can also use “all-natural” repellents to protect yourself from ticks. I like them, but there are some people who question their effectiveness. My favorites are Green Mountain Tick Repellent, made in Vermont, and Just Naturals Natural Bug Spray, which is made in New Hampshire. Both of these products were developed by professionals looking for an alternative to the potential harmful effects of DEET. Both products do work, but the major drawback to both is that you have to re-apply them often.
Make Your Property Safe
According to Dr. Eaton, the greatest natural enemy to ticks is a dry environment. In times of drought, tick numbers will drop. Nevertheless, even during normal times, there are a number of things you can do to reduce the population—for instance:
Mow your lawn. A short lawn allows for quicker drying. Also, the taller the grass, the more chances you have of encountering a tick.
Mow a strip between your habitation area and any thick brush. Ticks love brush. Remove thick brush near the border of your property.
At the very least, stay out of the brush as much as possible. If you do go into the brush, make sure you are using a repellent. While this will not eliminate ticks, it will cut down on your interaction with them.
Ticks have always been here, and we will never get rid of them. The best we can hope for is to manage their habitats near our own; use care when we are in their domains; and use appropriate clothing and repellents to minimize our exposure to the diseases they carry.
The more you know about ticks, the better prepared you will be.
After any adventure outside, it is always good to check everyone, including pets, for ticks. It only takes a few minutes, and it could save you from having serious problems down the road.
Ticks don’t bite right away; it might take 24 hours before a tick finally decides to bite, so you may find a few crawling round. This is good, because it is the ones you don’t see that pose the greatest threat. Make sure to check your hairline, armpits, behind your knees and your crotch. Check the seams and cuffs on your clothing. You never know where they will be.
If you have been bitten, remove the tick as soon as possible. Using a pair of tweezers or a tick removal tool, grasp the tick by the head and gently pull. Try not to break the head off in your skin. Once the tick is out, treat the area with antibacterial ointment and watch for symptoms. If they occur, seek medical help. Do not use a hot match or cover the tick with Vaseline, because these methods could do more harm than good.
Permethrin Facts and Advice
‹ Do not apply Permethrin directly to any part of your body.
‹ Treat fabrics such as clothing, boots, car seats and dog beds.
‹ Permethrin lasts a long time after being applied. Re-apply after six weeks or six washings.
‹ Make sure to treat socks, boots, pants and shirts at least one hour before wearing them to allow the Permethrin to dry.
‹ This product will not harm your gear.
Dr. Alan Eaton UNH Cooperative Extension
Green Mountain Tick Repellent
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April, 2018 print issue of American Survival Guide.