With a sharp barbed mouth, it tunnels beneath human skin in seconds and slowly starts to feed on the blood from its host without the victim ever knowing it’s there …
Sounds like a scene from an alien horror film, doesn’t it? In reality, it’s the feeding habits of a tick.
These insects that inhabit the wooded areas around us are among the top causes of deadly diseases, and the season when they’re most active has begun.
While there are many ways to repel ticks or keep them away from your skin, it’s nearly impossible to keep yourself, loved ones, pets, members of your unit, etc., entirely free of these blood-sucking insects. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to know what ticks look like, how to properly remove them if one attaches itself to your skin and what sort of illnesses you should be aware of if bitten.
The Lone Star, American Dog, Brown and Deer tick are the four most common types found in Virginia, as shown in the accompanying illustration. Any of these ticks can carry infectious diseases that they pass to their host through bacteria or viruses in their saliva.
Some of the diseases found in ticks include Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Human Monocytic Ehlichiosis, Human Granulocytic Ehlichliosis, Lyme Disease, Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness, Babesiosis and Tularemia. Nearly all tick-borne diseases have many of the same symptoms – fevers and chills, aches and pains, and rashes around the bite location. Few cases result in death, especially if quickly diagnosed and treated.
Not all ticks are infected and there is no way to tell if they’re carrying a disease just by looking at them. The thing that’s important to note, however, is that ticks would need to attach themselves and feed on your blood for several hours before an infection is passed. Therefore, it is important to remove any tick that is attached to your skin as soon as possible and have it sent to be tested.
Ideally, seeking assistance from a medical professional to properly remove a tick is best. If that’s not an option, remember the following guidelines:
• Do not apply materials such as petroleum jelly, finger nail polish or remover, repellants, pesticides or a lighted match to the tick while it is attached. These materials are usually ineffective and could agitate the tick to the point that it salivates or regurgitates infected fluid into the wound site.
• Ticks are best removed with pointed tweezers or tick spoons. Grasp the tick’s mouthparts against the skin and pull slowly and steadily with firm force in the reverse of the direction in which the mouth parts are inserted. Do not squeeze, twist, jerk or crush the body of the tick because this may force infected body fluids through the mouthparts and into the wound site. Pulling slowly and steadily also will prevent the mouth parts from being torn from the body, leaving them embedded in the skin. The mouthparts alone cannot transmit disease but it’s best to remove all parts of the tick to prevent secondary infection.
• Following removal of the tick, wash the wound and your hands with soap and warm water, then apply an antiseptic. The tick should be placed in a vial, dry jar or a sealable plastic bag or container and stored in the freezer until it can be brought to a medical facility for testing.
Awareness is the most important tick safeguard. Always keep in mind that they are most active between April and September. While they tend to inhabit wooded areas or overgrown places where the ground is covered with leaves, thick weeds or high grass, they also can be found on well-mowed lawns or even inside your home.
It is important to use personal protective measures to prevent a tick from attaching itself to your skin. The first line of defense is clothing – shirts, pants, high-ankle socks and close-toed shoes or boots. In situations where a tick encounter would be more likely – doing lawn work, hiking or training in wooded areas, sleeping outdoors, etc. – tucking shirt tails into pants and pant legs into boots is recommended.
Use insect repellent containing DEET on your exposed skin and an insect repellent containing permethrin on your clothing. Check your clothing thoroughly for ticks before you come inside, and check your whole body once you’re indoors. Placing clothes in a hot dryer for 20-30 minutes is the best way to ensure any ticks you failed to notice are killed. If your pets go outdoors, groom them carefully for ticks every time you bring them back indoors.
For more information and additional tips, visit www.cdc.gov/ticks/index.html. A kids’ resource can be found at www.cdc.gov/ticks/resources/DontletTicksbitemeComicGenericFS_508.pdf.