What You Need to Know About Tick-Borne Illness

What You Need to Know About Tick-Borne Illness

To most of us, ticks are just a necessary distraction from the things we love so much. We flick them off our pants during turkey season and we pull them from our skin after a day of summer scouting.

Most of the time, we are left with nothing more than a red spot that itches for a couple of days.


Some of us aren't quite as lucky. An estimated 300,000 Americans are infected with Lyme disease every year. Many of them are unsuspecting hunters.

So how do you know if you are one of them?

You've Been Bitten By a Tick

The obvious first sign is a tick bite, but the mere presence of a tick on your skin is no cause for alarm. Only ticks that actually sink their capitulum, or head, into your skin can transmit Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. The sooner you pull it, the less likely you are to get any of them. It can take up to 24 hours for an embedded tick to transmit Lyme disease.

More good news? Not all ticks are vectors for Lyme. Some species, like the lone star tick, don't carry it at all. Neither do dog ticks or wood ticks. Only black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, carry Lyme disease.

The bad news, of course, is that all ticks carry some disease that affects humans. Some of them are mild. Others? Not so much.

Bull's-Eye Rash

A tick bite by itself isn't cause for alarm. Neither are a little redness and itching around the bite area. That's a typical symptom of every tick bite.

Keep an eye on that area, though. If that red spot starts expanding days after you've pulled an embedded tick, you may have Lyme disease. It can take several days or even a couple of weeks for the rash to develop, but it will eventually lose its redness in the middle, revealing a bull's-eye pattern around the bite. That's a sure sign.


That red rash isn't always obvious on everyone and not all tick bites evolve into a bull's-eye. In fact, an estimated 50 percent of Lyme victims don't recall seeing a rash around the bite, according to the Lyme Disease Association. Even if it does show up, that rash will eventually go away. That doesn't mean you are clear.

Achy Joints, Fever

After the rash goes away, expect a new round of symptoms. Flu-like symptoms are common. So is chronic fatigue and even swollen lymph nodes (located on your neck, in your armpits and in your groin). If the disease isn't detected and treated soon after the bite occurs, those symptoms can persist for years and other medical issues will arise. Most notably, achy joints can get worse and victims can suffer long-term memory loss.

The longer you wait to get treated, the worse those symptoms will get. In fact, achy joints can turn into long-term arthritis. You can also develop central nervous system problems as a result of untreated Lyme disease.

No matter how far along you are, seek medical help. If it's caught early, a standard dose of antibiotics can stop it from progressing into something much worse. However, left untreated for a long period, it can be difficult to cure and the worst symptoms can be debilitating. Heavy antibiotics and even hospitalization may be necessary.

Bye, Bye Red Meat

If you can't imagine living without a steady diet of venison and other red meat, take note. Thousands of patients have shown up in doctor's offices in recent years with allergic reactions linked to red meat. Known as the alpha-gal allergy (short for alpha-1, 3-galactose), it comes from the bite of lone star ticks, which do not transmit Lyme disease.

The bad news? According to researchers, the range of lone star ticks has increased dramatically in the past few decades, spreading northward and westward from its original range in the southeast and mid-Atlantic. So have cases of the alpha-gal allergy.

Victims suffer allergic reactions, sometimes severe, when they eat meat from mammals. Symptoms can include swelling of the lips, tongue and throat, hives, severe itching, nausea and diarrhea. Left untreated, allergic reactions can be fatal.

The only way to prevent an outbreak once you've been infected is to avoid eating meat from any mammal. There is no known cure, although researchers at the University of Virginia are working to better understand the disease and potential cures. The symptoms do seem to subside in some cases over time.

Even Worse

Another tick-borne virus is making headlines, for good reason. Named after a town in Ontario where it was first identified, the Powassan virus is extremely rare (just 60 cases have been reported in the last ten years), but the impact is significant to those who are infected.

Symptoms often don't show up for a week or more after a tick bite. They include fever, nausea, weakness and confusion. The worst symptoms include swelling of the brain, seizures and altered mental status. A few victims have died.

There is no known treatment for it yet and half the victims suffer long-term effects on their brain. Because it is so rare, doctors often have trouble identifying the disease.

Keep Them Off

A number of products are effective at keeping ticks at bay. Lots of them aren't. The best one is permethrin, a synthetic chemical that effectively repels ticks and insects. It's meant to be sprayed on outerwear, not on skin, where it creates a barrier that can kill ticks when they come in contact with it.tick_remove_5

A single dose of permethrin can last weeks. DEET, the active ingredient in many insect repellents, also works, but its effect is temporary. DEET products need to be re-applied every few hours.

If you find an embedded tick, pull it immediately with a pair of tweezers by grabbing the tick as close to the skin as possible. Fingers will work, but squeezing the tick by the body can push various diseases into your blood. Pulling it with your fingers can also cause the head to break off and remain embedded in the skin.

Contrary to popular belief, ticks can not grow another body if their head remains. However, it can lead to infections.

More important, if you've pulled embedded ticks and you have any symptoms related to any tick-borne illness, seek medical attention immediately. The longer you wait, the more likely you are to suffer the worst effects. That might include a missed hunting season.

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