Ticks: A Tiny, but Serious Threat

BlogHer Original Post

The days are hot and many of us are enjoying taking off into the great outdoors with our families. To see what we could do to remain healthy while frolicking out in the sun, I got in touch with the Tick-Borne Disease Alliance (TBDA) -- after all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lyme disease is the fastest growing infectious disease and the most common tick-borne disease in the country, with the highest infection rates affecting children between two and 14 years of age.


Photo by Fairfax County. (Flickr)

"Ticks carry a myriad of diseases; in fact, they are cesspools of disease," says Robert Oley, who has a master's in Public Health and is the author the Alliance's Tick Talks. "Some of the potentially debilitating diseases they carry include Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, bartonella, tularemia, tick paralysis, and deer tick virus. You can become infected with more than one of these diseases from a single tick bite when a tick feeds on you for its blood meal, much like a female mosquito will bite and feed on you. Where a mosquito is biting you for just a few minutes, a tick can be on you for several days sucking your blood, and you will never know it was there. You won't know it was there because it is so very tiny, and because when it starts sucking your blood, it injects you with a pain killer so you do not feel it."

Ticks are not just something we should watch out for when hiking. According to Oley, 75 percent of people who become infected with Lyme disease, come into contact with ticks in their own backyards.

"Ticks can be out looking for a host 24 hours a day," he says. "And they can wait days on end in the very same place (blade of grass, leaf litter, small shrubs, etc.) for a host to come by. Ticks love a humid environment and are generally found near their hosts. Thus you find them in woodlands, fields, and grassy areas along the edges of woodlands, vegetable gardens, and ornamental gardens. You also find them near stone walls, woodpiles, fallen logs, edges of woodland trails, etc., anywhere there are rodents and other vertebrate hosts."

How do we prevent coming into contact with ticks?

"There are two types of tick repellents -- those you apply to clothing, camping gear, shoes, etc., and those you apply directly to exposed skin," says Oley. "The repellent you apply to clothing and other gear consists of a chemical called permethrin. It is used to repel and kill ticks as well as a variety of insects, and has been approved by the EPA as safe for use on clothing. Permethrin is readily available through most sporting goods companies. If this gear is used outside by you on a regular basis, it should be sprayed once per month. Please note that the chemical permethrin is used in head lice shampoo, and once sprayed onto and bonded to clothing, camping gear, etc., is safe for human use."

What about repellents for the skin? Are they safe to use?

"There are many repellents available on the market for use on exposed skin for repelling ticks," Oley tells BlogHer. "However, they do not kill ticks. Some of these repellents contain such chemicals as DEET, IR3535, and picaridin, as well as the natural product lemon eucalyptus, to mention a few. All of these compounds have some risk associated with their use, and some more than others. One should carefully research them before using. Whatever product you do use however, should say on the container that it repels ticks. If it does not, then do not buy it for repelling ticks."

If one should find a tick, how is it removed?

"The very best way to remove a tick is using pointed tweezers," says Oley. "Wearing a pair of latex gloves, you grab the tick with the tweezers as close to the skin as possible, and with a steady motion pull it out. Once removed, you disinfect the area with rubbing alcohol, as well as the tweezers. You put the tick, dead or alive, in a zip lock bag (or other suitable container) and save it for future testing at a tick testing laboratory should it be deemed necessary by you and/or your health care provider. Write the time and date on the bag as to when the tick was removed, as well as the name of the person bitten. Please do not try to remove a tick with a burning match, vaseline, nail polish remover, gasoline, etc., as any one of these products may cause the tick to secrete the contents of its contaminated stomach into your body."

What can we do to ensure our clothes remain tick-free?

"When coming in from outside, whether after gardening, golfing, hunting, hiking, etc., place your clothes in a clothes dryer and run it on high for 20 to 30 minutes," advises Oley. "Any ticks on that clothing will be killed from the extreme heat. And by all means, at the end of any outdoor activity and at the end of the day, people should carefully check themselves and family members for ticks especially on such places as the back of the knees, groin, navel, armpits, back, neck at hairline, behind ears, and on scalp."

How are some ways we can make sure our pets that we take out with us are safe to go back in the house after a trip into the wild?

"Pet can bring ticks into the home after a trip outside," Oley warns. "There are various products that will help protect your pets from getting the same diseases we get from tick bites that veterinarians can recommend. In general, when a pet comes in from outside, they need to be carefully checked for ticks. And most importantly, pets should not sleep with people or occupy furniture used by people as ticks can be easily transferred from your pet to you, and you will just never know it."

For more information, visit The Tick-Borne Disease Alliance.

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