Preventing Tick-Borne Diseases

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With the coming of summer, most of us will be spending more and more time in the woods. Hunters will be scouting new sites, or observing the movement of their favorite game, in order to be prepared for the coming hunting season. Hikers, campers, and fishermen will spend hours or days in the fields, woods, and trials of America. Often, we head off into Mother Nature without a serious care in the world, but we should have some concerns.

Most of us have encountered ticks on our wilderness treks and, like mosquitoes, give them little pause for thought. Very few of us seriously consider the little pests to be much of a threat, usually we just pull the tick off and continue on our way, not realizing the potential danger the tick may present. A simple tick can carry a variety of diseases, all of which can, at the least, make you very sick and in the most serious cases even cripple or kill. How much do you know about ticks, the removal of ticks, the symptoms of the various tick-borne diseases, treatment, and prevention?

Ticks commonly infest the woods, fields, and front yards of many places in America. Ticks make a living by attaching to animals and burying their heads into the skin of the host long enough to get a bite to eat. Once attached a tick may dine on the unsuspected host for days, with their bodies swelling significantly while gorging on the blood of the host.

I can remember growing up in Missouri and finding ticks on me almost daily. These same ticks may be capable of transmitting a tick-borne disease. You my find it interesting that there are various types of ticks that carry the diseases, and tick-borne diseases have been identified in all states except Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and Alaska. Those of us who live in the southern states are pretty much exposed to all of the tick-borne diseases, with the exception of the Babesia Infection, which has only been identified (so far) in the northeastern part of the United States.

So, let’s look at a few of the tick-borne diseases and where they are usually found.

Lyme Disease is found in a scattered manner across North America. However, it does not seem to be common in most of the plains states.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever has been reported in most of North America except for Hawaii, Vermont, Maine and Alaska. This illness is the most common of the tick-borne diseases.

Colorado Tick Fever is limited to the western portion of North America with an especially high incidence in Colorado.

Southern Tick-Associated Rash. This disease is common in the south and may be difficult, without laboratory testing, to separate from Lyme disease. To the eye, the rash may appear to be Lyme disease, due to the similarity of the rashes.

Tularemia endemic areas include North America and parts of Europe and Asia. The disease is rare in the USA.

Babesia Infection is very rare and only seems to be found in the Northeastern part of the United States. Unlike the other tick-borne diseases, which all have somewhat similar symptoms, this illness has malaria like symptoms.

Ehrlichiosis is the newest tick-borne disease and is currently under evaluation. It was first clearly identified in 1994, and so far, it has only been identified in a few cases in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

Now that I have your attention, if you find a tick on you, don’t panic. There are many different ways to remove a tick and the one that works for you is the best. Absolutely, do not grasp a tick and just pull it off! The head may remain and cause an infection (even if the tick is not diseased). In the military, we often used a hot, blown out match head. We placed the hot end of the match near the ticks rear, it would release, and then it would back out. At that point the tick could be removed and dealt with properly. Also, we were taught to coat the tick with tree sap, an oil, or Vaseline, to cut its air supply. After a couple of minutes the tick will back out and you can remove it safely. Another good way to remove a tick is by using a commercial tick removal kit, which is available at many sporting goods stores.

Regardless of the method you use to remove a tick, always clean your hands afterwards with soap and water. Also, the area of the bite should be cleaned. There may be some itching in the general area of the bite following the removal of a tick. This discomfort is very common in a crotch area (genitals, armpits, or rear). Cold compresses, or a mixture of water and ashes, can greatly reduce the itch.

If you find and remove a tick from your body, watch for symptoms of sickness onset over the next few days. If you start to notice any of the symptoms listed below, do not wait for them to go away, instead seek medical assistance immediately. The symptoms of most tick-borne diseases are (with the exception of Babesia, which has malaria like symptoms):

  • A rash at the bite area that appears to be an allergic reaction.
  • Flu like symptoms: stuffy head, runny nose
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained Headaches
  • Stiffening of the neck
  • Discomfort in your jaw
  • A fever, even a slight one.
  • Gland (neck, armpits) swelling
  • Swollen or stiff joints
  • Reddening of the Eyes

If you do not see a doctor, and you go untreated, the disease will progress to the next stage one to three weeks after the bite:

  • Dizzyness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Weakness of facial muscles

Depending on the particular disease you have been exposed to, the symptoms for the late stages may vary. But, in all cases, seek medical attention at the first sign of a tick-borne illness.

The treatment of tick-borne diseases depends on your doctor. In most cases, treatment involves the use of antibiotics. Your medical professional is very qualified to treat the illnesses and will develop an individual treatment plan for your case. Keep in mind though; in many cases you can still experience recurring symptoms for a long time (perhaps years). Also, make sure you follow your doctor’s recommendation for treatment to the letter. Lyme disease is very serious and can adversely affect your overall heath.

We have discussed ticks, tick-borne diseases, the removal of ticks, the symptoms of tick-borne diseases, and the treatment. But, by now you may be asking, how do I avoid a tick bite to start with? Good question and a smart one as well. The best way to avoid a tick bite is to prepare before you go into the woods. Use common sense and:

  • Make sure all of your clothing over laps and covers all exposed skin.
  • Use commercial tick repellent on your clothing.
  • Wear long pants and long sleeve shirts.
  • Blouse your pants, or wear long socks that are pulled up to cover your pants.
  • Keep long sleeves rolled down and buttoned.
  • Always wear a hat, keep in mind that ticks love hair.
  • Stop at least once, usually midday, and have a tick check and then check again before going to bed.

Tick checks, while boring, are the best defense against ticks. During a check you should remove all your clothes and check the hair, hairline, and all the crevices and rolls of your body. Ticks unfortunately have an uncanny ability to seek out the places where the "sun doesn't shine", so be sure to fully check yourself, because chances are good that a tick will not pick an area to bite that is visible with a quick, once over in the mirror.

Our time outdoors should be fun and exciting for us. While the rewards of spending time with nature are great, remember, there are some risks. If you use common sense, dress properly, check for ticks at least twice a day, and know the symptoms of tick-borne diseases, you can feel more confident about your time outdoors. Knowledge is the key to really enjoying your time in the woods.

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