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Why tick bites can be so dangerous

In the fall up to half of the pests can be infected with diseases like Lyme

Last updated: November 10, 2015 12:00 PM

If you’ve been spending a lot of time working outdoors, take note: it’s still tick season, and those tiny beasts can cause big health problems. I know this first-hand because one of the blood-suckers made my husband so sick recently that he was nearly hospitalized.

The problem is that right now, in some areas of the country, up to half of ticks can be infected with diseases such as Lyme, compared with just 25 percent of ticks in the summer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the reason for the increase is that the spiderlike creatures have had more opportunity to pick up disease-causing bacteria.

And they’re not picky eaters. Ticks feed on rodents, pets, and deer, though they acquire illnesses like Lyme from mice and chipmunks. Their tick bites then spread disease to people who spend a lot of time outside, like my husband.

Tick reality check

“Mosquitoes kill more people than ticks do, but ticks can infect people with more than one disease at a time,” says Marc C. Dolan, M.Sc., a senior research biologist for the CDC in Fort Collins, Colo.

That’s why it’s important to keep up your guard when you’re outside. “I spend one week a month working in tick habitats,” Dolan says, “I’ve never gotten sick, but I’m diligent about wearing insect repellent, tucking my pants into my socks, and wearing long pants and boots.”

Because ticks grow larger at each life stage, they’re easier to spot in the fall if one hitches a ride on you. Still, a tick bite may go unnoticed because its saliva contains a numbing agent. So daily tick checks are important, too.

Dolan says if you see a tick you need to remove it quickly, within 24 to 36 hours, to prevent it from transmitting Lyme disease. But other diseases may be transmitted in minutes, not hours.

Remove the tick with fine-tipped tweezers or, as a last resort, your fingernail. Special tick-removers you see advertised don’t actually work any better, he says. Make sure to use direct, even pressure to pull the tick straight out—don’t twist it. Then, flush it down the toilet or wrap it in tape or a sealed plastic bag. Never crush the tick with your fingers because infected material can come out of the damaged tick.

Should you panic?

Once you remove a tick you might be worried about getting sick. You should discuss your concerns with your doctor, says Ben Beard, Ph.D., chief of the CDC’s bacterial diseases branch in the Division of Vector-borne Diseases. Sometimes an antibiotic may be warranted if all of these conditions are met:

  • Lyme disease is common in the area where you live or have recently traveled.
  • The tick bite is from a blacklegged (deer) tick.
  • The tick was attached for more than 36 hours (based on how engorged it is with blood or when you were likely exposed to it).
  • You’re able to take the antibiotic within 72 hours (3 days) of removing the tick.
  • You’re not allergic to the antibiotic.
  • You're 8 years old or older.
  • You’re not pregnant.

"Antibiotics are powerful drugs and should only be taken in situations where they are likely to be effective,” Beard says.  

Do you check yourself for ticks?

What's your secret for keeping them from latching on to you? Please share it below.

What to do if you get sick

Despite all this, what if you come down with flulike symptoms—fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches? You might be confused because you didn’t develop the usual bull’s-eye rash (my husband didn’t) that an estimated 70 to 80 percent of people do get. Or maybe you don’t recall having gotten a tick bite at all.

Still, if you live or recently traveled in certain parts of the country, Consumer Reports’ medical advisers say you should suspect a tickborne illness and call your doctor so that treatment can start quickly and you can get some relief from your misery.

Tickborne diseases can be severe and even deadly if not treated early. “The sooner you get treatment the better, especially for the elderly or those with weak immune systems,” says Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports’ medical director.

My husband fell ill swiftly, starting with night sweats, chills, and a splitting headache. He woke up with a high fever and, on the advice of his doctor, we went to the emergency department on a Sunday afternoon.

The doctor on duty at the hospital recognized an illness he had seen so often in New York and prescribed an antibiotic called doxycycline right away, though blood tests were still pending. My husband's symptoms didn’t really start to subside until about 48 hours later. The diagnosis of Lyme wasn’t confirmed until weeks later in follow-up blood tests because it usually takes that much time for the antibodies against the disease to develop.

My husband is back to cutting the grass and raking the leaves, but now he reaches for the insect repellent first.

—Sue Byrne (@SueCRHealth)

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