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Preventing Tick-borne Illnesses

As warmer weather approaches, it’s natural to spend more time outdoors. If you’re planning activities outside with friends or family, remember that the insects you encounter may not only spoil your picnic or hike, but may also harm your health.

Ticks – one of the main offenders we come into contact with during spring and summer– carry a variety of bacteria, viruses and diseases. A tick bite can cause an illness that ranges from a mild infection to a serious health emergency.

Ticks are most active during the warmer months, from April to September each year, and tend to gather in wooded or bushy areas, with tall grass or other vegetation, logs or leaf litter – such as hiking trails, forest areas, and in your own back yard.  Ticks can also live on the coats of your dog or cat, especially if they are an outdoor pet.

Common tick-related diseases

Two of the most common tick-borne diseases are Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Others include babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STAR1), Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever, and tularemia.

The type of illness contracted from a tick bite depends on the type of tick and the geographical area where you live. Certain types of ticks, and the bacteria they carry, are more common to specific areas of the country. While each disease has unique characteristics, all tick-borne illnesses produce similar, flu-like symptoms: fever, body aches, and chills.

Tick-borne illnesses can produce other symptoms in addition to – or instead of – the telltale circular rash and fever. Other symptoms to look for include:

  • Body/muscle aches
  • Lymph node swelling
  • Small, non-itchy, pink rash on arms, ankles, trunk
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Rash
  • Stiff neck
  • Facial paralysis

If identified early, tick-borne diseases can be treated by your doctor with antibiotics. However, prompt treatment is important. Tick-borne diseases in more advanced stages can be more difficult to treat, and some can cause arthritis, muscle and joint pain, or fatigue for an extended period of time – as well as serious health complications.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is the most commonly reported tick-borne disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2010, the CDC received reports of more than 22,500 confirmed and 7,500 probable cases of Lyme disease. Lyme disease begins with a tender red bump that can grow into a bull’s-eye-shaped rash around the tick bite. Untreated, Lyme disease can produce memory loss, mood changes, limb weakness, joint pain, heart rhythm problems, neurological damage, and meningitis. The bacteria related to Lyme disease enters the blood stream after the tick has been attached to the skin for 36 to 48 hours.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

The most severe tick-borne illness in the U.S. is Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Though it also produces flu-like symptoms, fever and a rash, it is difficult to identify through lab tests. Symptoms develop over five to 10 days, and can be severe, often requiring hospitalization. Patients can experience nausea, vomiting, severe headache, and muscle pain in the early stages of disease. If not treated promptly, Rocky Mountain spotted fever can cause paralysis of the lower limbs, hearing loss, loss of bladder control, and language disorders. Untreated, the disease can be fatal.

If you find a tick on your body, or suspect you’ve been bitten, or you have spent time in areas populated by ticks and develop flu-like symptoms or a rash, seek medical help immediately. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can help prevent the onset of a tick-borne illness, lessen the severity of symptoms, and help prevent any potential long-term complications.

Preventing Tick Bites

The best prevention is to take steps to avoid tick bites altogether.

  • Avoid places where ticks often live, such as dense woods and brushy areas.
  • Use insect repellants containing at least 20 percent or more DEET, or another tick repellant registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at http://cfpub.epa.gov/oppref/insect/.
  • Treat clothing – boots, pants, socks and tents – with permethrin, an insect repellant, or purchase pre-treated clothing, for use in outdoor areas likely to have ticks.
  • Shower as soon as possible after coming indoors (within two hours), and conduct a full-body tick check, paying special attention to areas under the arms, in/around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and in the hair.
  • Check gear (tents, backpacks, and outerwear) and pets for ticks. Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill ticks.

Source: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, www.cdc.gov

How to Remove a Tick

The National Institutes for Health recommends the following procedure to remove a tick that is attached to the skin.

  1. 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.
  2. Grab the tick near the skin and pull upward with a slow motion. Avoid jerking or twisting motions.
  3. 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 it for identification in case the bitten person becomes sick. Make a note of the date you removed the tick.
  4. Thoroughly disinfect the site of the tick bite, and wash your hands thoroughly.
  5. If the bitten person shows signs of having the flu or a rash in the area around the bite, contact your doctor.

Learn more at www.BRMC-Cares.com by clicking on “Health Resources” and “Interactive Tools,” and learn what to do if you suspect a tick bite by taking the “First Aid/Emergency Quiz,” or click on “Library,” then “Diseases and Conditions,” “Travel Medicine,” and “Lyme Disease,” to learn more about symptoms and prevention of one of the most prevalent tick-related illnesses.

About the Author: Narendra Nigalye, MD specializes in Internal Medicine, is a Board Certified Internal Medicine and is a Member of the Medical Staff at Brownwood Regional Medical Center

Remember that this information is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor, but rather to increase awareness and help equip patients with information and facilitate conversations with your physician that will benefit your health.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, www.cdc.gov; National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, www.niaid.nih.gov; Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov

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