In our bug bite series, we have gone through several annoying camping critters such as mosquitos, fire ants, and bees. For the last post in the series, we’ll be dealing with the potentially serious carriers of blood-borne diseases: ticks.
What are ticks?
Ticks are blood-sucking arthropods. These creatures have been around for about 90 million years. They are parasitic, and while not all transmit harmful microbes, some species are known disease carriers.
The eastern half of the U.S. serves as home to dog ticks (Dermacentor variabilis). These tiny blood feeders can reach as far as California. This type of tick can transmit diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia.
In the Eastern and upper Midwestern regions, deer ticks (Ixodes scapulars) are identified carriers of Lyme disease and babesiosis. Lone star ticks (Ambylomma americanum) which are typically found in the Northeast and Midwest regions of the U.S. are known to transfer diseases such as ehrlichiosis, and the Southern tick is associated with rash illness.
Ticks get onto your body by climbing over grass, low plant, logs, and other near-to-the-ground objects. They use their back legs to attach to these objects and reach out their front legs ready to grab onto anything that brushes past their location. When a moving object like a dog or a camper passes by, ticks immediately latch onto them and climb upwards. Once they find an inconspicuous place on the skin, they sink they mouthparts into the flesh and feed on blood. Ticks only fall off once fully engorged from blood.
Protecting Oneself from Getting Bitten
1. Select sites with showering facility. Ticks are most active during the months of April to September when the weather is warm and sunny. Therefore, if you plan to go on a trip, make sure to select a site with a showering facility. Showering helps you get rid of ticks that you may have acquired during your trip. Make sure to take a shower within two hours of being outdoors.
2. Stay away from shady and wooded areas. Avoid places that are dark, moist, and wooded. These places are suitable breeding grounds for ticks and are likely to be infested. Staying away from these places can help reduce your exposure to these blood-sucking creatures.
3. Keep on the trail. Make sure to stay within the track and avoid long grasses and leaf litters. Ticks usually remain on the ground and grass. They tend to attach to your clothes and shoes and crawl upwards.
4. Wear long sleeves and pants. Covering all visible parts can help reduce the possibility of skin exposure and tick bites. Since ticks usually live on the ground, make sure to secure the bottom part of your clothes. Tuck your pants inside your socks and keep your shirt tucked inside your pants to prevent these insects from entering from the waist. You can also wrap a layer of duct tape to keep the shirt securely tucked in.
5. Wear a cap or braid your hair. Although ticks don’t fall from trees, they can still reach your head by crawling. Keep your head protected by braiding your hair or wearing a cap. This prevents ticks from attaching to hair strands and reaching your head.
6. Choose light-colored clothing. Wearing light-colored clothes make it easier to spot ticks on you. It also helps keep you cool when you’re out camping.
7. Use tick repellent. While insect repellants work well with other pests, there are some that are not effective at repelling ticks. Make sure to buy ones that are tick repellent. Spray tick repellent on your shoes and clothes.
8. Check your body every 2-3 hours. Make sure to do a whole body check to see if there are any ticks on you. If you spot a tick, remove it with tweezers. Never use your fingers to grab and squeeze it. Doing so will only push the tick to inject more fluid into your skin and increase your rate of infection.
9. Remove your clothing and have it cleaned immediately. You can unintentionally bring home ticks from your trip. Once you get home, jump into the shower and take a bath. It can help remove ticks on your body. Toss your clothes into the dryer for 10-15 minutes to kill any remaining ticks. Make sure to do this before washing the clothes. The dry, hot condition inside the dryer can kill them.
10. Save the tick. f you’re worried that a tick may have infected you, save the tick in a jar or bag once you have removed it from your body and killed it, and bring it into your doctor.
Tick bites don’t immediately cause itching or skin irritation. A substance in its saliva prevents the blood from clotting and from triggering a reaction from your immune system. You can only detect tick bites if you spot the tick on your skin or if you see the bite once the tick has fallen off.
Spotting a tick can be difficult especially if it's in its nymph stage and is roughly the size of a poppy seed. The best way to find a tick attached to the body is to run your hands over parts of your body that ticks tend to bite.
Once a tick has fallen off, it leaves a red welt or an itchy lesion on the skin. Tick bites that are not carrying Lyme disease can pass off as a mosquito bite and fade away quickly. However, if the tick bite doesn’t go away within a few days, that could be an indication that you’re infected with Lyme disease or some other kind of tick-borne infection.
Lyme disease leaves a red welt surrounded by one or more outer rings of inflamed red skin that resembles a bulls-eye rash. On the other hand, Rocky Mountain spotted fever leaves red dots on the ankles and wrists.
How to Treat the Affected Area
If you spot a tick, make sure to remove it immediately. Lyme disease can be transmitted within 36 hours from contact. However, some diseases can be transmitted within hours.
Remove ticks immediately using a pair of tweezers or available tick-removal tools. Make sure to pull it out (especially the mouthparts) immediately. The longer that these blood-suckers are on your skin, the more likely that they will transmit pathogens. When removing ticks, never use petroleum jelly or a match to remove it. It will only make the pest burrow deeper and release more saliva into your skin. Once removed, use alcohol or other disinfectants to clean the bitten area.
See a doctor if the tick bite looks nothing like a mosquito bite and you start to feel any flu-like symptoms, chills, and muscle pain within 7-10 days upon exposure, it can be a sign of tick-borne infection. He or she will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat the problem.