If you walk in the woods this time of year, you probably do it with an uneasy background thought: ticks. Spring is early this year, and so are these tiny arachnids. They need a blood meal to survive and multiply, and that meal sometimes comes from humans.
Most people know at least that much about ticks, along with the fact that they can transmit several diseases. That’s enough information to bring up more questions, and here are some answers that can help you avoid a tick-borne disease:
Q: Why should I be concerned about tick bites in Montana?
A: Tick bites here can cause several diseases. Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a bacterial infection that can cause kidney failure if not treated quickly. Tularemia is also bacterial, and can be fatal if not treated with the right antibiotics.
Colorado tick fever, which is caused by a virus, causes flu-like symptoms that usually last for one to three days. Another condition, called tick paralysis, is caused by toxins in the tick’s saliva. Tick paralysis starts in the legs and rises, but typically resolves quickly after the tick is removed.
Another bacterial disease, called tick-borne relapsing fever, occurs in Montana only rarely. It causes several days of fever and other symptoms. Without treatment these symptoms can return, resolve and return again, up to four or five times.
Q: Do ticks in Montana transmit Lyme disease?
A: Although people in Montana have been diagnosed with Lyme disease, all of them had traveled to locations where ticks are known to carry this disease. The ticks that transmit Lyme disease have not been found in Montana, but health agencies continue to monitor the situation to learn if it is spreading to new areas.
Q: How do ticks find people?
A: Ticks need blood to survive, and they are good at finding animal hosts – including birds and even reptiles and amphibians – to supply it. If you happen to be the closest animal, a tick may find you by sensing your body heat and moisture, the carbon dioxide in your breath or the vibrations of your footsteps. Some tick species can even sense your shadow. To get on board, many types of ticks use a technique called “questing” in which they hold on to a leaf or twig by their back legs while stretching out their fronts. When a host brushes past, the tick climbs on.
Q: How can I protect myself against tick-borne diseases?
A: You can avoid ticks by staying out of the woods and away from tall grasses. If you can’t resist a hike during tick season – from now until midsummer, when hot weather starts – stay in the middle of the trail. Wearing light-colored clothing can help you spot ticks, and using insect repellent can help keep them away. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends spraying your clothes and exposed skin with a repellent that contains 20 percent to 30 percent DEET. Or you can use the Environmental Protection Agency’s search tool to find a repellent with other ingredients, such as citronella or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Go to www2.epa.gov/insect-repellents/find-insect-repellent-right-you.
When you get home, bathe or shower as soon as possible. The sooner you find a tick the better, even if it is already embedded in your skin. Ticks are less likely to transmit disease if they are removed quickly.
You should also check your kids and yourself for ticks, especially in your hair, around your ears, under your arms and behind your knees. And don’t forget to check the dogs – ticks that don’t attach can ride inside and drop off in your home.
Q: What should I do if I find a tick on myself or my child?
A: First don’t try holding a lit match to the tick or covering it with petroleum jelly or nail polish. These methods don’t work, and they may make things worse by causing the tick to burrow deeper or release more saliva. Instead, use narrow-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick’s head as close to the skin as possible. Pull slowly outward, without twisting or jerking, until it lets go. Wash the area with soap and water or swab it with alcohol. If the mouth parts break off, try removing them with clean tweezers. But don’t dig at the site – it’s OK to leave it alone and let it heal.
Q: What should I know about insect repellents and kids?
A: It’s important not to use any kind of insect repellent on children younger than two months. Also, don’t use one with oil of lemon eucalyptus on children under three years or age. For older kids, The CDC recommends a repellent with no more than 30 percent DEET. Or find one with another ingredient by visiting the EPA website listed above.
Whichever repellent you use for your kids, don’t apply more than necessary to cover clothes and exposed skin. If you use a spray, protect the child’s eyes and use it outdoors to avoid breathing it in.
When kids come back inside, have them change clothes and wash their exposed skin with soap and water to remove remaining repellent. Wash the clothes before they are worn again.
Q: When should I see my doctor about a tick bite?
A: A tick bite alone doesn’t necessitate a trip to the doctor. But you should watch for symptoms of a tick-borne disease that may show up in the weeks following the bite. Depending on the disease, you may have:
- Fever. All tick-borne diseases cause some degree of fever, and possibly chills.
- Headache and muscle aches.
- Rash. Rocky Mountain spotted fever causes a rash that varies from person to person, and about 10 percent of people with this disease don’t get any rash. Tularemia can cause a skin ulcer at the site of the bite.
- Swollen lymph nodes.
Lyme disease may cause any of these symptoms, along with joint pain and a distinctive, bull's-eye rash. To learn more about Lyme disease symptoms and the areas where this disease is found, visit the CDC at cdc.gov/lyme.
If you have any of these symptoms after a tick bite, see your doctor right away. If they occur after you’ve been in a tick-infested area, see your doctor even if you didn’t notice a bite. Many people who get sick with a tick-borne disease never find a tick.
Shawn Lake writes for Community Medical Center.