While the intermittent weather shows no sign yet of thawing out, inevitably the sunnier seasons will arrive and with that more outdoor activity and exposure to an often neglected parasite: TICKS.
Commonly associated with as pet pests, some species of ticks don’t play favorites and will willingly latch on to any warm-blooded source of nutrient, and yes it includes humans.
Ticks are also carriers of Lyme Disease, and as one unfortunate family in Indiana found out, the fatal Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, too.
“The issue with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is, unlike many other tick-borne diseases, it’s more severe and can cause death,” says Colleen Nash, MD, MPH, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who talked with Health.
Read on for more helpful information about handling ticks:
1.Ticks are not insects
Ticks are actually arachnids, meaning they’re closely related to spiders than they are to flies or mosquitos. They even look a lot like spiders, but blessedly don’t fly or jump. Instead, when ticks are ready to feed, they typically wait out on blades of grass or other foliage for a human or animal to pass by and then they latch on. From there, some ticks might crawl around until they find a thin area of skin near a small blood vessel, where it’s easier to extract blood.
2. Only a few types of ticks spread diseases in the U.S.
Scientists have identified thousands of tick species across the world, but only a handful or so really cause us trouble in the U.S. The blacklegged tick (or “deer tick”), the Rocky Mountain woodtick, the American dog tick and brown dog tick (both found across the country) are especially ones to look out for.
3. If a tick bites you, it’ll probably stick around for a few days
“It’s not like a mosquito, which stays on you for a few minutes,” says Peter Krause, MD, a senior research scientist in epidemiology and microbial diseases at the Yale School of Public Health.
The first thing the tick will likely do is look for a good spot to set up its proverbial picnic basket. Next, it will burrow its creepy little head into the skin, unpacks its feeding tube, and spits out a cocktail of blood-thinning, skin-numbing, human-immune-system-fighting saliva. It will likely feed for about 2 to 3 days, and, if it’s a female, can swell up to nearly in double its normal size—which is useful for when it needs to lay eggs.
4. Ticks don’t start transmitting diseases ASAP
Transmission rates vary by the disease and the tick, but in general, it’s not instantaneous. The Center for Disease Control says that if you can remove a tick within 24 hours, your chances of getting Lyme disease are pretty low—in fact, in most cases, it takes 36 to 48 hours before the bacteria that causes Lyme disease can infect you.
5. Ticks can spread multiple diseases at once
To be clear, humans aren’t ticks’ choice meals. Mice, birds, rabbits, and deer are on the menu too. And as they climb from mammal to mammal, they infect their hosts with certain pathogens and pick up disease-causing bacteria themselves.
“It’s not unheard of for ticks to be carrying three different diseases at one time,” says Dr. Krause.
6. You should remove a tick with a pair of tweezers
It’s a bad idea to deal with ticks the way you deal with any other unwanted blood sucker: by yanking it off.
Find a good pair of pointy tweezers. Grasp the part of the sucker that’s as close to the skin as possible, because its mouthpiece is literally inside your skin. Then, pull upward carefully and steadily. Flush it down the toilet, or if you want to bring it to a doctor, put it in an airtight, zip lock bag. If you don’t get to remove the entire head, don’t worry, it will eventually remove itself after a few hours since the tick itself is dead, said Dr. Krause. Be sure to clean the area of the bite.
7. The symptoms from tick-borne illnesses can show up within a few days
Most tick-borne diseases can trigger a fever, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches; some also trigger a telltale rash. People who develop Rocky Mountain spotted fever usually have the fever part first: the small, flat, pink rash tends to show up two to five days later. With Lyme disease, the infamous rash (it looks like a bulls-eye and gradually radiates outward) might appear anywhere from three days to a month after the bite, and it usually arrives before the fever.
But if a red ring under five centimeters (and doesn’t grow any bigger) appears around the bite, and disappears after a few days, it’s most likely just an allergic reaction.
8. Not everyone with Lyme disease will get a rash
The CDC estimates that about 20% to 30% of people with Lyme disease won’t exhibit that bulls-eye rash, but that doesn’t mean they won’t develop other symptoms, like arthritis in the joints, muscle pain, and even meningitis or encephalitis, further down the road.
9. Just because a tick can transmit a disease doesn’t mean it will
Thankfully, there’s a good chance that you won’t actually come down with an illness even if you’re bitten by an infected tick. Health cited the 2014 review of the Journal of Autoimmunity, only about 1% to 3% of people who are bitten by an infected tick will end up getting Lyme disease.
But remember: if you start exhibiting flu-like symptoms in the days (or weeks) after you the bite, tell your doctor—it’s another sign that you may have a tick-borne illness.
10. Lyme disease rates have been climbing steadily
Ever since the CDC started keeping records in 1991, Lyme disease infection rates have trended upward. The number of confirmed cases peaked at about 30,000 in 2009, but it since then, it’s remained stable at around 25,000. But that figure doesn’t count what the CDC believes are unreported cases.
11. There’s no Lyme disease vaccine for humans, but there’s one for dogs
Dogs can get Lyme disease from a tick bite, too. And although there are some dog vaccines available, it’s not clear how protective they are and if your pet will need booster shots.
12. You’re most at risk for a tick bite in the summer
While ticks don’t exactly have an off-season, “nymphs,” or non-adult ticks, are in full swing in warmer season, according to the 2014 study in the Journal of Autoimmunity.
13. You can protect yourself against ticks
Ticks are often on the foliage that border meadows and where deer like to graze, you can count on ticks to be there too.
If in tick territory, tuck your jeans into your boots or socks, slap on an insecticide, or wear clothing that’s been treated with the insect repellant permethrin,. The CDC recommends people use an insect repellant that contains at least 20% DEET, and to do tick checks every two to three hours, especially in the scalp, belly button, armpits, ears, the back of your knees, and between your legs. Remember, some species are especially small, so keep an eye out for a new freckle that isn’t really a freckle suddenly popping up after a day outside.