The incidence of tick-borne diseases is on the rise and, if that isn’t enough, new ones are on the way, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Powassan disease, caused by a potentially fatal virus that can be transmitted through tick bites, is typically rare among humans. And yet, reported cases of Powassan infections are expected to continue to rise. Among the symptoms of infection are fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures, and memory loss. Long-term neurological effects are also possible, according to the CDC.
Aside from Powassan, ticks are also the vector for the transmission to humans of at least a dozen other diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease. New diseases from ticks are still being discovered, like the Bourbon virus that was discovered in 2014.
Like Powassan, there are no effective vaccines yet available against some of these diseases, and the best way to avoid getting them is to avoid getting bitten by ticks.
Ticks belong to the class Arachnida and are related to spiders and scorpions, but unlike most of their larger cousins, ticks are parasites that feed on the blood of mammals, birds and even reptiles for sustenance. Because of this, much like fleas and mosquitoes, it’s possible for them to transmit diseases from one species to another.
Disease-carrying ticks commonly found in the U.S. include:
- American Dog Tick
Also called “wood tick”, the American dog tick carries various diseases that could affect humans, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever. They’re found in highly wooded areas, as well as grounds with long grass. They’re widely distributed east of the Rocky Mountains, but have also been found along the Pacific coast. (Photo courtesy of the CDC)
- Blacklegged Tick
Also known as “Deer tick” because it’s usually found on white-tailed deer, they live within the northeastern and upper midwestern parts of the U.S. They carry various diseases, including Powassan and Lyme disease. (Photo courtesy of the CDC)
- Brown Dog Tick
The brown dog tick or kennel tick is found within all the states in the U.S. as well as worldwide. As the name suggests, they use dogs as their primary host, but they can also bite other mammals including humans. Kennel ticks within the southwestern U.S. and along the border with Mexico can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever. (Photo courtesy of the CDC)
- Lone Star Tick
Identified through the white dot (or star) on its back, the lone star tick is widely distributed in the eastern and southeastern United States and is well-known to bite humans. Their bites are usually painless and go unnoticed. Lone star ticks can transmit tularemia and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). (Photo courtesy of the CDC)
- Rocky Mountain Wood Tick
Distributed within the Rocky Mountain states from elevations of 4,000 to 10,500 feet, these ticks can transmit Colorado tick fever, as well as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. (Photo courtesy of the CDC)
- Western Blacklegged Tick
Found within the Pacific coast region of the United States, human infection caused by the western blacklegged tick is low, but cases of Lyme disease within the region are often attributed to bites from these ticks. (Photo courtesy of the CDC)
Avoiding and removing ticks
Ticks are usually active during the spring, summer and early fall seasons, but for regions with mild winters, ticks can still cause damage throughout the year. Here are some ways that you can protect yourself from ticks:
- Avoid areas with high grass and dense vegetation
Unlike mosquitoes, ticks can’t fly and must rely on their host getting into close proximity so they could jump onto or climb on them. They’ll scale stalks of grass and other plants and latch onto their host if they get close enough.
- Wear protective clothing
Long sleeves and pants can act as a barrier against ticks. Tuck your pants into your boots or socks to keep ticks from crawling up the inside of your pant legs. Light-colored clothes can also make tick-spotting easier, so you can remove them before they bite you.
- Use insect repellents
Insect repellents with at least 20% N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET) can be used to keep ticks away for several hours and can be applied directly on the skin. Follow the instructions closely when using insect repellents. Repellents with permethrin can be applied to exterior clothing only and must not be applied on skin.
- Protect your pets
If you’re taking your dog outdoors with you, they can be highly susceptible to being hosts for ticks, and they can bring ticks home and infect your household. Make sure to provide your pets with tick collars and check for infestation regularly, especially during the warmer months.
- Mow your lawn
Regularly trim the grass around your home and dispose clumps of dead vegetations to prevent tick nesting areas from encroaching on areas you frequent.
- Thoroughly check for ticks as soon as you can
Tick bites can be painless so it can be difficult to know if there’s one on you until you check. Take a shower as soon as you get home to wash off ticks before they can bite. Load your clothes directly into the washer, use hot water and dry on high heat.
Search and destroy
While there are tick-removal kits available, a set of tweezers will suffice in removing ticks that have attached themselves to your body. To remove them:
- Use the tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as you can. Don’t grasp its body– doing so will inject more of its saliva and blood into your skin, increasing the chances of infection.
- Pull upward with even pressure. Do not twist, unless you want the added work of digging its mouthparts out of your skin. If mouthparts are left attached to your skin, carefully remove them with your tweezers and use a magnifying glass to check the skin by sight, instead of by feel.
- If you don’t have tweezers with you, you can use a stiff card like your credit card to remove the tick. Slide the edge of the card next to the head of the tick, and then firmly hold the back of the tick in place. With the tick firmly held in place, slide the card against its head until the tick is extracted whole. If you are unable to remove the tick, or its head and mouthparts are embedded deep in your skin and couldn’t be extracted, you might require medical assistance to take it out as soon as possible.
- Clean the affected area as well as your hands with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. Dispose of the tick by dunking it in rubbing alcohol, but if you’re worried about getting a transmitted disease, you can also put it in a sealed bag and send it to a lab for testing. Do not crush it with your fingers! Doing so can cause disease transmission.
- Observe the wound over the following weeks for signs of possible infection. Some diseases will provide tell-tale signs, like the “Bull’s Eye” mark of Lyme and STARI disease, but other symptoms will include headaches, fever, muscle pain and rashes. If you suspect an infection, consult your doctor immediately.