A mild winter means one thing for those in the know about ticks – this season could be another one to stay vigilant.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says illnesses like Lyme disease from the small blood-sucking insects known as ticks is on the rise.
Yet there’s another reason for concern this year – ticks in the era of COVID-19.
“Similar to people rushing back into society and not taking precautions after being shut in for so long because of COVID-19, those who love exploring the great outdoors may be casting tick safety aside as they rush to enjoy hiking and other outdoor fun,” says Dr. Donna Fisher, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Baystate Children’s Hospital.
Why are ticks a health concern?
Ticks are small, blood sucking, spider-like insects that make their homes in wooded or grassy places where they can attach themselves to your skin.
They can carry diseases such as babesiosis, anaplasmosis, Powassan disease, and Lyme disease—the most common tick-borne infection. The latter is spread by blacklegged ticks when they bite mice or deer that are infected with the bacteria called B. burgdorferi. The infected tick then passes the disease onto humans with their bite.
Length of Attachment
“Ticks must be attached to the skin for at least 36 to 48 hours before they are able to pass along bacteria to humans that can cause infections like Lyme disease and anaplasmosis,” says Dr. Fisher.
A report called Vital Signs, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), notes illnesses transmitted by blood-feeding ticks and insects capable of transmitting pathogens – bacteria, viruses, or parasites – from one host to another, have more than tripled nationwide.
Dr. Fisher recommends “tick checks” for both adults and children when returning indoors after being out in wooded and grassy areas, and especially leaf piles, while playing, gardening, hiking in the countryside or camping.
Begin with Clothing
“Check clothing for any visible signs of ticks, then as an additional precaution you can tumble them in the dryer set to high heat for at least 10 minutes before throwing them in the wash. Showering in warm water can also be a good way to gently wash off unattached ticks that have made it from clothing to you or your child’s skin. You don’t want to vigorously scrub the skin and risk breaking in half a tick that might have become embedded in the skin,” says Dr. Fisher.
“While children are undressed, it’s a good opportunity to check their bodies for any sign of an attached tick. Checking your own body may be a little more difficult and require the use of a mirror, unless you have a partner who can check for you,” she adds.
Tick “hot spots” to check include under the arms, inside the belly button, behind the knees, in and around the ears, waist and back, pelvic area, and in-between the legs.
Removing the Pesky Bug
If you do find a tick on the skin, the CDC offers the following tips on how to remove the pesky bug:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick, which can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
- Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.
“Testing of any given tick found and removed for infection in the tick is not predictive of transmission and is not recommended for treatment decisions,” says Dr. Fisher.
When To Call the Doctor
“Most of the time the site will heal on its own. Medical attention should be sought
if the tick bite site develops redness, swelling, or tenderness to the touch, which could
be a sign of a secondary bacterial infection,” Dr. Fisher says.
Tick-borne illnesses can exhibit some symptoms not unlike COVID-19, notes Dr. Fisher, including fever, muscle aches, headache and fatigue.
“While breathing problems can occur with some infections, it is rare and more of a sign of the novel coronavirus. A typical symptom of Lyme disease that occurs in most, although not all cases, is a rash around the tick bite resembling a bull’s-eye,” says Dr. Fisher.
If illness develops within a few weeks of a tick bite, seeing a doctor is recommended immediately. Symptoms of Lyme disease that develop within the first month following a deer tick bite can include one or more rashes which may or may not resemble a classic bulls-eye, heart problems, meningitis, and/or facial palsy (a loss of muscle tone or “drooping” of one or both sides of the face). Occasionally, patients are seen with later manifestations of the disease, which most frequently is swelling in a single joint – usually the knee (often referred to as Lyme arthritis). Antibiotics can be used to treat early and late-onset Lyme disease.
But, the best treatment for Lyme disease is prevention.
How To Dress
“If you or your children are going to be out hiking in the woods or playing in bushy or tall grassy areas, dress in long-sleeved shirts and long pants, a hat, and use an insect repellent that contains at least 20-30 percent DEET as additional protection. For those concerned with the chemicals found in insect repellents, there are some natural alternatives available including oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is approved for kids 3 years and older, and others made with natural plant oils,” says Dr. Fisher.
“In certain situations, a dose of antibiotics can be given to children after a tick bite to help prevent development of Lyme disease. Be sure to check with your child’s doctor for the latest information about Lyme disease prevention following tick bites,” she adds.
Make An Appointment
To make an appointment with an adult infectious disease specialist, call 413-794-7394, or for pediatric appointments, call 413-794-KIDS.