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Getting Sick from a Tick

The weather is warming up, the spring rain showers are coming, and that means the people of Northwest Arkansas are going outside to play in full force. But the beautiful weather also means one of our least-favorite critters is making the rounds: the tick. Today, we are going to take a look at how ticks spread disease, what to look out for if you start feeling sick, and some good ways to avoid bites.

How do ticks spread disease?

Animals that have a pathogen are known as reservoirs. Common animal reservoirs for tick-borne diseases are deer, rodents such as wild rabbits and mice, and dogs. Ticks are known as vectors, meaning they pass pathogens from one organism to the next. Only a tick infected with a certain pathogen can spread that disease, and these pathogens are transmitted to humans and animals through the process of feeding. If the host animal has the pathogen, the tick will ingest it in the blood and pass it along through its saliva to the next host.

What kinds of disease do disease spread?

There are more than a dozen common diseases that ticks can spread, but the most common found in Arkansas are human monocyte ehrlichiosis (HME), Rock Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), and tularemia. Another recently diagnosed disease is southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI).

Symptoms of Tick-Borne Diseases

Each disease has its own particular symptoms, but they do share many in common. Most people feel like they are getting the flu and complain of fever, malaise, headaches, body aches, and chills. A rash is common in many tick-borne diseases, and it may be found somewhere on the body other than around the site of the tick bite. STARI is associated with a “bulls-eye” rash around the bite area.

Tularemia has a number of forms and is most often associated with ulcers and/or swelling of the lymph glands, particularly in the groin, armpit, and neck. The most serious form infects the lungs, and symptoms may include coughing, chest pain, and difficulty breathing.

If you have any of these symptoms and think you may have been bitten by a tick within the last few days, contact your physician as soon as possible. Left untreated, many tick-borne diseases can have serious and even fatal side effects.

Treatment for Tick-Borne Diseases

Your physician may do blood tests to determine if you have a tick-borne disease. Because these diseases are caused by bacteria, your physician will prescribe an antibiotic. Depending on the severity of the disease, you may require hospitalization for appropriate treatment, so it is important to talk to your physician as soon as you start to feel sick.

Avoiding Tick Bites

There are some simple and effective strategies to avoid getting bit. These include:

  • Avoiding areas where ticks are abundant, such as thick brush and tall grass
  • Checking your body and clothing for and removing ticks during and after outdoor activities
  • Bathing after outdoor activities where ticks are abundant, which may wash off ticks that have not yet attached, help find ticks on dirty skin, and reduce exposure to ticks still in clothing
  • Wearing protective clothing, such as light-colored clothes to make finding ticks easier, as well as long sleeves with tight wrists and long pants tucked into light socks
  • Using tick repellent on skin and clothing
    • Clothing and gear treated with permethrin
    • Using a DEET repellent spray on clothing and skin

Read our article, “Tick Bite Prevention.” for more tips on avoiding and safely removing ticks.

Keeping Pets Safe from Ticks

Having pets that go outside regularly can increase your risk of tick bites. Dogs are very susceptible to tick bites and tick-borne diseases. There aren’t vaccines for every tick-borne disease that dogs can get, and even those won’t prevent ticks from getting on you or into your home. Tick bites are also hard to detect on dogs, and it may take one to three weeks before the disease appears; watch your dog closely for behavior or appetite changes if you think your pet has been bitten.

There are two main strategies for avoiding tick bites on your pets: killing and repelling. Killing ticks on your pets is done with a pesticide called an acaricide. Examples of acaricides are fipronil, permethrin, and amitraz. Some kill on contact, while others absorb into the dog’s bloodstream and kill attached, feeding ticks. These are found in certain powders, impregnated collars, sprays, and topical treatments. Repellents, such as permethrin, will help prevent your pet from coming into contact with ticks.

Note: Cats are very sensitive to many chemicals; consult your veterinarian before you use any of these products on them.

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For more detailed information regarding ticks and the diseases they can spread, visit www.cdc.gov/ticks/index.html.