Tick-borne illnesses pose significant risk to your health

Monday, June 17, 2013

The arrival of summer means backyard barbecues, vacation Bible schools, road trips and water fun. But, the warmer temperatures and increased activity trumpets the arrival of an unwelcome pest that is more than just an annoyance. Whether you are trudging through that high grass field to get to your favorite fishing hole or taking your family on a nature hike through one of the state or federal parks, you must take precautions against ticks.

Ticks are insects that live off the blood of their hosts, and they can cause serious illnesses. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease are two illnesses that have infected Missourians. However, they only scratch the surface of the total tick-borne illnesses that have been seen in the state.

According to Christopher Sporleder, D.O., a physician at Marshall Family Practice, there have been several other less-recognized illnesses cased by ticks.

"At least six different human tick-borne diseases have been reported in Missouri: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, ehrlichiosis, tularemia, Q-fever, lyme or a lyme-like disease and the southern tick-associated rash illness," said Dr. Sporleder.

There are currently 90 known species of ticks in the United States. Many of these live only in specific regions of the country and will not be seen by most Missourians, unless they travel out of the area. Missourians will likely encounter the American dog tick, lone star tick and deer tick.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can cause rash, loss of appetite, red eyes, headache, nausea, vomiting, fever and abdominal pain which may mimic appendicitis. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be fatal in the first days of infection if proper treatment is not administered. If detected early, an otherwise healthy patient may be treated by outpatient medications. A less healthy patient or late detection may cause the patient to be admitted to the hospital for intravenous antibiotics or intensive care.

Lyme disease, in the early stages, can cause fever, chills, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, headache and swollen lymph nodes as well as an expanding rash that looks like a bull's- eye. In its later stages, lyme disease can cause bell's palsy, meningitis, heart palpitations, dizziness, shooting pains that interfere with sleep, pain and swelling in joints and arthritis.

Erlichiosis is a general term for several bacterial diseases carried predominantly by lone star ticks. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the symptoms of erlichiosis include fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. Infection can be confirmed by a lab test. Erlichiosis is treated by an antibiotic medication called doxycycline.

Tularemia, according to the CDC, most often affects small mammals, though it has been seen in some humans. The illness can be life-threatening, but can be easily treated with antibiotics. You can also contract tularemia through ingestion of contaminated water, fly bites, inhalation of certain aerosols and bioterrorism.

Q-fever can cause very high fevers, severe headaches, general malaise, chills and/or sweats, nausea, vomiting, unproductive cough, diarrhea, chest pain and abdominal pain and is treated with antibiotics.

Southern tick-associated rash illness looks very similar to an early onset of lyme disease. Its symptom primarily consists of a bull's-eye rash that expands to eight centimeters or more in diameter, approximately seven days after an infected tick bite. The sufferer may also have headaches, fatigue, fever and muscle aches. There is no treatment for Southen tick-asociated ash ilness currently.

Ticks find us by "questing", that is climbing to the top of vegetation and reaching out with a hooked leg to hopefully grab us as we brush by," said Dr. Sporleder. "They are also known to be attracted to carbon dioxide sources as well, but most procure their hosts by questing."

You can protect yourself from tick-borne illnesses by taking some simple precautions. Wear long pants with the legs tucked into your socks so that ticks cannot quickly access your skin. Wearing light-colored clothing can help detect dark colored ticks quickly.

Another precaution is to wear a tick repellant. There are many tick repellants on the market with Deet or Permethrin as their active ingredients. However, you can just as easily make tick repellant at home. A spray bottle with two parts water to one part white vinegar can be used. Since vinegar has an unpleasant aroma, you can add 20 drops of your favorite scented oil like cinnamon. Spray repellants on clothing rather than the skin, as chemicals contained within the repellant may cause an adverse reaction.

"The majority of tick-transmitted diseases take a period of at least 12 hours of tick attachment to contract the disease. This gives us outdoorsmen a great window in which to find the ticks and detach them before having any transmitted illness," said Dr. Sporleder.

If you have a tick embedded in your skin, removing it properly is important to limit your exposure to bacteria. A pair of tweezers should be used to grasp the tick as close as possible to the skin. You should then pull the tick straight out without twisting. The tick's jaw has barbs which causes it to stay attached to the skin. Squeezing the back of the tick or twisting it can cause the tick to regurgitate bacteria into the skin.

If the head does not extract when you pull the tick away from the skin, clean the area with soap and water, and apply alcohol to the affected area. The skin is a very efficient organ and it will expel the tick head on its own. Keep the area clean. If a rash or fever develops, visit with your physician.

Tick-borne illnesses can pose significant risk to your health. But taking appropriate steps this summer to make sure you and your children are protected is both simple, and worth it.