It’s finally summer — the perfect time to go outdoors and soak up the sun. But with warm, summer weather also comes the perfect time for ticks. Though ticks may seem small and insignificant, just one bite can cause big problems.
As the outdoor temperatures continue to rise, take the opportunity to learn more about ticks, the diseases they carry, and the major health implications these diseases cause.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common tick-borne disease, Lyme disease, affects approximately 35,000 people each year. Just in North Carolina alone, nearly 350 people contracted Lyme disease in 2019, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services.
“There are multiple species of ticks in the United States. Many of which are common in the Southeastern United States. In addition to Lyme disease, there are several other tick-borne illnesses, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Therefore, it is important to be aware of exposure to tick and tick bites,” said Iredell Health System’s Vice Present of Medical Affairs, Joseph Mazzola, DO, MBA, CPE.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is the most frequently reported vector-borne disease in the United States. In addition to ticks, vectors can be any mosquito or flea that spreads disease.
Lyme disease is transmitted to humans from ticks infected with the Lyme disease bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi. Fortunately, not all ticks carry this bacteria.
According to the CDC, only two species of tick can be infected with Lyme disease bacteria — the blacklegged tick, often called deer tick, located in the eastern United States, and the western blacklegged tick, located in the western United States.
Blacklegged ticks have a reddish-black body and can be very tiny, less than two millimeters. They may even resemble a small freckle.
Generally, the tick must be attached to your body for 36 to 48 hours or more before the infection begins to spread.
And just because you see a blacklegged tick on your body does not mean you have Lyme disease, as not all blacklegged ticks carry the infectious bacteria.
How do I know if I have Lyme disease?
According to Mazzola, early symptoms of Lyme disease infection in humans can include a red, ring-like rash. However, this rash is not present in all cases of Lyme disease. It typically occurs within 3 to 30 days after an infectious tick bite.
Other early signs of Lyme disease may resemble flu-like symptoms, including:
- Joint pain.
- Swollen lymph nodes.
A few weeks or months after a tick bite, additional symptoms of Lyme disease may occur. These include:
- Severe headache and neck stiffness.
- Numbness and pain in the hands and feet.
- Paralysis of facial muscles, usually on one side of the face.
- A slow or irregular heartbeat.
- Arthritis with extreme joint pain and swelling.
- On-and-off pain in the muscles, bones, joints, and tendons.
- Short-term memory problems.
How can I prevent Lyme disease?
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to avoid tick bites. In North Carolina, Lyme disease cases are most prevalent in June, July, and August.
Ticks normally live in wooded areas or areas with tall grass and lots of shrubs. If you enjoy camping, hiking, fishing, or gardening in the summer months, it’s crucial to take extra precautions to protect yourself from ticks.
“In order to avoid becoming infected with a tick bite, it is important to use good insect repellent when in the outdoor areas where ticks are known to habitat,” said Mazzola. “Treating clothing and gear is also another good option when hiking or camping,” he added.
Wearing a hat, long pants, and a long sleeve shirt can also help to protect your skin from tick bites.
After being outdoors, make sure to do a skin inspection and shower within two hours of coming indoors, as this may help wash away unattached ticks.
Ticks can be found on any part of the body, but are most common in hard-to-see areas like your armpits, groin, and scalp.
What do I do if I have a tick?
If you do get bit by a tick, do not panic. The CDC recommends these simple steps to make sure you remove it properly:
- Grasp the tick with a pair of fine-tipped tweezers right next to your skin. Try to get as close to the tick’s mouth as possible.
- Pull the tick straight out in a slow, steady motion, making sure not to twist or crush it.
- After removal, clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
- Do not crush a tick with your fingers. You can dispose of a live tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag or container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet.
If you have any of the symptoms of Lyme disease and have been bitten by a tick, make sure to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. Although death from Lyme disease is rare, it is crucial to visit your doctor to avoid any permanent damage.