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Tick-Related Illnesses

Healthcare providers and researchers agree: this will be a bad year for ticks and we need use preventative measures to minimize the threat of tick-borne illnesses.

Tick populations are related to the number of acorns produced. "Ecology research shows when acorns are plentiful, mouse populations explode in the following years, giving rise to more ticks," says Dennis Kane, MD, a pediatrician practicing at Maryland-based Righttime Medical Care in Rockville and Gaithersburg, Md.

Ticks can carry bacteria and viruses that can lead to severe illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the number of reported Lyme disease cases in the United States — now 300,000 per year — has tripled since the late 1990s. The disease causes flu-like symptoms and most people can recover with antibiotics.

In addition, this year the rare tick-borne Powassan virus is starting to make an appearance, which also comes with flu-like symptoms, although no treatment is available.

"While we need to remember not every tick carries bacteria or viruses, more ticks means we'll very likely see more related illnesses," Dr. Kane says. "Everyone who spends time outdoors, even just playing in the backyard, should perform a daily check."

To minimize ticks and related illnesses:

  • Avoid places with thick vegetation and high grass.
  • Carry a lint roller when outdoors to pick up ticks before they crawl onto skin.
  • Use insect repellent with 20 percent or more DEET, or with picaridin, oil of lemon, eucalyptus, or IR3535.
  • Avoid repellents on infants younger than two months.
  • Apply products that contain permethrin to clothing and gear before going outdoors.
  • Shower after coming indoors to inspect the body, paying attention to armpits, groin and genital areas, and use a fine-toothed comb on hair.
  • Check children daily.
  • Treat pets with products that kill or repel ticks.
  • Examine gear and pets since ticks can hitch rides.
  • Wash clothes in hot water and dry on high heat for 10 minutes.

While prevention is key, the good news is that ticks don’t pass along bacteria and viruses immediately. “Ticks need to be on the body for an extended period, usually 18 to 24 hours, and show signs of being at least partially engorged,” explains Dr. Kane. “It’s unpleasant, but they regurgitate blood as they stay attached. The danger begins after a day or so because whatever they’re carrying has a chance to get into your bloodstream.”

If you do find a tick, remove it immediately following these steps:

1) Use a pair of pointed tweezers to grab the tick as close to the head as possible, not on its body.
2) Pull up firmly away from the skin with a slow and steady motion.
3) Disinfect skin with rubbing alcohol and wash hands with soap and water.
4) Dispose of the tick by submersing in rubbing alcohol, placing in a sealed bag, wrapping in tape, or flushing down the toilet. Take a photo before disposing of it if you want to refer to the type of tick later.
5) If you can't take it out, visit a health care provider for removal.

The CDC advises not to keep a tick after removal: If testing shows the tick had disease-causing organisms, you may not necessarily have been infected, but if you have been infected, you may develop symptoms before results are available.

Don’t do any of these things when attempting to remove a tick as they can cause the tick to bury more deeply:

  • Smother an attached tick with petroleum jelly, nail polish, gasoline, rubbing alcohol, or any type of essential oil.
  • Burn the tick while it is stuck to the skin.

Watch for signs of infection in the days following removal, including fever, chills, headaches, and/or muscle aches. A bulls-eye rash can appear following a Lyme disease infection, but not always. Other disease may cause rashes that are not circular. If you suspect anything, see a health care provider as soon for possible.

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