Ticks and the Diseases They Cause
Ticks can transmit disease, including Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Powassan virus. In recent years, researchers have also found that ticks may cause an allergy to meat, known as alpha-gal allergy.
Ticks can be active year-round, even during winter, whenever temperatures are above 40° F. As a result, precautions should be taken against tick bites throughout the year. Smaller nymphal ticks typically carry lower levels of disease than larger adult ticks, however nymphal ticks are responsible for spreading more disease. This is because smaller nymphal ticks are harder to find during tick checks than larger adults, so be sure check yourself carefully after being outdoors!
Also, did you know that different kinds of ticks can transmit different diseases? Keep reading to learn more.
1) Blacklegged Ticks (also known as Deer Ticks) (Ixodes scapularis)
typically transmit Lyme disease, babesiosis, anaplasmosis and Powassan virus.
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia borgdorferi. A characteristic sign of Lyme disease is a red circular rash (bull’s-eye rash) that may appear a few days to a month, at the site of the bite, after being bitten by an infected tick. Multiple rashes may develop. About 60-80% of people who get Lyme disease develop a bull’s-eye rash. Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, fatigue, stiff neck and muscle/joint pain, are also common in early Lyme disease. If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause complications such as recurring swollen and painful joints, temporary facial paralysis or heart problems.
Lyme Disease Information from New York State Department of Health
Lyme Disease Information from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Babesiosis is a rare and sometimes deadly disease caused by the protozoan Babesia microti. The disease can cause fever, fatigue and anemia (low red blood cell levels) lasting from days to months. It may take from 1-8 weeks for symptoms to appear.
CDC Babesiosis Information
Anaplasmosis is caused by the bacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilia and may cause flu-like symptoms 1-3 weeks after the bite of an infected tick. Infection usually produces mild to moderately severe illness, with high fever and headache, but may occasionally be life-threatening or even fatal.
CDC Anaplasmosis Information
Powassan Virus is named after Powassan, Ontario, where it was first discovered in 1958. Signs and symptoms of infection can include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness,confusion, seizures, and memory loss. Long-term neurologic problems may occur.
CDC Powassan Virus Information
2) Lone Star Ticks (Amblyomma americanum)
typically transmit ehrlichiosis, tularemia and Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness (STARI).
Ehrlichiosis is caused by the bacterium Ehrlichia chaffeensis and is similar in many ways to anaplasmosis.
CDC Ehrlichiosis Information
Tularemia is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. Within 2 weeks, symptoms appear which include swollen lymph glands and a skin ulcer at the site of the bite of an infected tick.
CDC Tularemia Information
Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI) is thought to be caused by the bacterium Borrelia lonestari and is similar to Lyme disease. Individuals infected with STARI may develop flu-like symptoms and a bull’s-eye rash. However, STARI itself does not appear to be serious or potentially fatal.
CDC STARI Information
Alpha-gal Allergy Allergic reactions associated with consumption of red (mammalian) meat have been reported among persons bitten by lone star ticks.
Alpha-gal allergy: Meat Allergy Caused by Lone Star Tick
Alergia Alpha-Gal: Alergia A La Carne Causada Por La Garrapata Estrella Solitaria
3) American Dog Ticks (Dermacentor variabilis)
typically transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is caused by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii. RMSF is characterized by a sudden onset of moderate to high fever (which can last for 2-3 weeks), severe headache, fatigue, deep muscle pain, chills and rash, which begins on the legs/feet or arms/hands, and may spread rapidly to the rest of the body. Symptoms usually appear within 2 weeks of the bite of an infected tick.
CDC Rocky Mountain spotted fever Information
Tularemia is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis Within 2 weeks, symptoms appear which include swollen lymph glands and a skin ulcer at the site of the bite of an infected tick.
CDC Tularemia Information
Diagnosis and Treatment
Be sure to seek medical attention if you become ill after a tick bite. Generally, an evaluation of symptoms and blood tests will be used in making a diagnosis. Most tick-borne disease patients respond well to appropriate antibiotic therapy. Prompt diagnosis and treatment improves outcome. Your physician will choose the medicine that is best for you.
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Personal Protection against Tick-Borne Diseases
Ticks will remain active year-round (above 40°F/4.4°C). Preventive measures should be used whenever tick-exposure is likely. Here are some steps to follow:
- Wear light-colored clothing
- Wear long pants and sleeves
- Tuck your pants into your socks
- Tuck your shirt into your pants
- Use repellents as directed
- Walk along the center of trails
- Conduct frequent clothing checks
- Once home, dry clothing on the highest temperature setting for 10 minutes to kill any ticks
- Carefully inspect your body for ticks
- Keep pets from tick infested areas and check them before entering the house.
Repellents may be used to repel ticks and prevent tick attachment. Always read and follow all label directions carefully.
- Repellents containing DEET may be applied to the skin and clothing. Lower concentrations of DEET are preferable, especially for children.
- Repellents containing permethrin may be applied to clothing only.
Studies have shown that the tick must stay on the body for 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease. Prompt and proper tick removal is essential and may decrease your chances of getting tick-borne diseases. The steps are:
- Use fine-point tweezers or tick-removal tools. Grasp the tick where its mouthparts enter the skin and pull the tick straight out.
- Do not twist or squeeze the tick’s body. Be patient – proper tick removal takes time.
- Do not use petroleum jelly, gasoline, lit matches, oils, or any other remedies to remove ticks. These methods may actually increase your chances of contracting a disease.
- After removing the tick, disinfect the bite area and wash your hands.
- Monitor the bite area for early signs and symptoms of Lyme disease
- Call your physician if you get any symptoms.
Ticks do not burrow under the skin, and any remaining mouthparts after tick removal will not transmit disease. However, additional aggravation of the bite site may cause secondary bacterial skin infections.
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Research, Management & Resources in Suffolk County
In 2011, Suffolk County established a Tick and Vector-Borne Diseases Task Force, which issued its final report in December 2015. The major recommendations of the Tick and Vector-Borne Diseases Task Force Final Report were: 1) survey Suffolk County tick populations in order to evaluate tick density and population ranges and 2) create a countywide tick-borne pathogen surveillance program to better understand pathogens present in tick populations and the related public health risk to county residents. In 2016, Suffolk County established the Tick Control Advisory Committee. The committee has guided Suffolk County tick surveillance and control efforts by Department of Health’s Arthropod-Borne Disease Laboratory (ABDL) and Department of Public Works’ Division of Vector Control. Information on tick research and control efforts can be found starting on page 16 in Suffolk County’s Division of Vector Control’s Annual Plan of Work. The following activities are underway:
- The Department of Health Services and the Department of Public Works are conducting tick surveillance in all 10 of Long Island's towns in order to study pathogens present in tick populations and the related public health risk to county residents.
- The Department of Public Work (DPW) is conducting surveillance at four locations all year round to evaluate tick density and population ranges.
- SCDHS Tick Pathogen Surveillance Program
Tick Management for Municipalities and Commercial Pesticide Applicators
Suffolk County’s Division of Vector Control is conducting field trials using selected pesticides used by commercial applicators to test efficacy against ticks. Trials have been completed for some the products. Municipalities, commercial pesticide applicators and other entities that are conducting tick control, may contact Suffolk County DPW Division of Vector Control for advice on best practices in Integrated Pest Management. Contact: 631-852-4402.
Tick Management Suggestions for Homeowners
Ticks do not jump, fly, or fall from trees. They crawl close to the ground on leaves, brush and tall grass. Homeowners should consider:
- Keep lawn mowed and bushes trimmed;
- Remove lawn debris and leaf litter;
- Discourage rodents by reducing nesting sites (e.g. wood piles or holes in stone walls) or food sources (e.g. bird seed);
- Move lawn furniture and children’s toys away from wooded areas or wooded edges of your yard where ticks are more likely to be found.
Additional information regarding tick management: Tick Management Handbook by Kirby C. Stafford III, PhD (PDF file)
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