If you spend any time outdoors, you’ve probably crossed paths with ticks. Ticks are small, bloodsucking parasites that depend on a host – humans and animals – for survival. Ticks aren’t insects; they’re actually in the class of arachnids, as are spiders, scorpions and mites. And, ticks don’t actually “bite” per se. Instead, they attach themselves to people and animals to feed off the blood of their unwitting hosts, for periods up to a week and more. Once engorged with blood, sometimes increasing their size by 100 percent, the ticks will fall off and move on in their life cycle.
Of the estimated 800 kinds of ticks that exist in the world, about 100 kinds of ticks are known to carry and transmit diseases. In New Jersey, the deer tick – also called the black-legged tick – is the principal carrier of Lyme disease.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection and the most common tick-borne disease in the United States. The bacterium is transmitted to humans via a tick bite. Within one to two weeks after being infected, a “bull’s-eye” rash can develop at the tick bite site, accompanied by fever, headache, and muscle or joint pain. Some people can have Lyme disease and not experience any early symptoms, while others can have a fever and other “flu-like” symptoms without a rash. Left untreated, the bacterial infection can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system, causing permanent damage in patients with late-stage Lyme disease.
“If you’re at all concerned about symptoms after being exposed to ticks, see your doctor right away,” said Cooper Family Medicine physician Marie E. Louis, MD. “Although Lyme disease can be effectively treated with antibiotics in its early stages, research shows that treatment with antibiotics for chronic or late-stage Lyme disease is not helpful,” Dr. Louis said.
Reduce Your Exposure
Most ticks “hang out” on vegetation, such as plants, trees, weeds, and on grass in wooded areas. Generally, ticks are found where they are most likely to come into contact with animals (including your family pet), such as near streams, lakes, and areas where animals are known to travel daily for food or water. Some ticks also are found in nests, burrows, and places where their animal hosts live and sleep.
To reduce your chances of being exposed to ticks, follow these precautions when working or playing outside:
- Separate the “play areas” of your lawn and yard from the bushes, shrubs, high grasses, and other types of vegetation that ticks favor.
- Be sure to give your pets preventive flea and tick medicines, even if they stay indoors; you and your visitors can unwittingly bring ticks into your home.
- When walking in a park or other outdoor natural setting, or when working in heavy brush and gardens in your yard, wear a cap, long sleeves and long pants, and tuck your pant legs into your socks. Choose light color clothing in order to spot ticks easily on your clothes.
- Use insect sprays containing 20 percent DEET on skin and clothes (or permethrin on clothes only).
- When walking on natural trails, stay on the trail.
- Always check your skin for ticks after working or playing outside, especially during warmer months. Ticks can be very small—as small as a poppy seed, so it’s important to examine your skin carefully.
- After an outing, immediately launder your clothes in hot water to kill any hidden ticks on your clothes and prevent them from getting loose in your house.
- Because it takes several hours for a tick to attach itself to your body and transmit disease, taking a shower with a scrubber or washcloth can remove any ticks you might have on you.
- If you find a tick attached to your body, remove it promptly and correctly (see instructions below). After the tick is removed, apply an antibacterial ointment to the attachment site.
“Remember, anyone who is bitten by a tick carrying the bacteria can get Lyme disease. Proper removal of a tick from the skin within 48 hours of being bitten can reduce the risk of disease transmission,” Dr. Louis said.
How to Remove a Tick
Folklore remedies such as petroleum jelly or hot matches do little to encourage a tick to detach from skin. In fact, these methods can make matters worse by irritating the tick and stimulating it to release additional saliva, increasing the chances of transmitting the disease-producing bacterium. These methods of tick removal should be avoided.
In addition, a number of tick removal devices have been marketed, but none are better than a plain set of fine-tipped tweezers.
To correctly remove a tick attached to your body:
- Use tweezers with a good grasping end to remove the tick as close to the skin as possible. Do not use your bare hands. Wear gloves or use a tissue to protect your hands from the tick.
- Grabbing the tick near the skin, pull upward with a slow, steady motion. Avoid sudden jerking or twisting motions.
- Place the tick in a sealable plastic bag and put it in the freezer. Do not crush or destroy the tick, and avoid touching the tick or any fluid that comes from it, including blood. You want to keep the tick for identification in case the bitten person becomes sick. Make a note of the date you removed the tick.
- Thoroughly disinfect the site of the tick bite by applying antibacterial ointment, and wash your hands thoroughly.
- If the bitten person shows signs of having the flu or a rash in the area around the bite, contact your healthcare provider.