What do you know about dealing with ticks? You may have been told to touch the body of a tick that has bitten you with a hot match to try and make the tick fall off. Or perhaps you were advised to pull off the tick and burn it or drown it in alcohol or cooking oil. And you were probably warned to make sure you got the head of the tick or else it could cause trouble. Unfortunately, most of this advice is unreliable, ineffective, or might even make things worse.
With all these myths and misconceptions about ticks and tick-born illnesses, I thought I would try to clear up some of the confusion.
What are ticks?
Ticks are very small insects that feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals, including dogs, cats, mice, deer, and, of course, people. A tick will latch onto the skin, dig in its feeding apparatus, release a little saliva, and then bite. It then sucks the blood of the animal. When the tick is full, it swells in size and usually changes color. Then it drops off the animal, only to repeat the cycle again later.
What problems do ticks cause?
Any tick bite can cause a small skin reaction or nodule on the skin. These are usually not very serious. A person may react to the tickâ€™s secretions, and get a fever, headache, or muscle pain. Very rarely, the presence of an embedded tick leads to â€œtick paralysis.â€ With this, a person becomes paralyzed from the feet to the head over hours or days, with complete recovery when the tick is removed.Â
But the most important problem related to tick bites is infections spread by ticks to the animals (including humans) they bite. Ticks can harbor infectious organisms, and when these ticks bite an animal, they can transmit the infectious organisms to the animal, causing disease.
Probably the best-known illness ticks spread is Lyme disease. Lyme disease is caused by a small, spiral-shaped (spirochete) bacteria that lives in the gastrointestinal tract of ticks. After finishing its blood meal, the tick regurgitates stomach contents back into the animal it has bitten. If the tick harbors the Lyme organism, then the organism can be introduced into the animal and cause Lyme disease.
Another way infections may be transmitted from ticks to humans is when organisms in the tickâ€™s saliva are transferred during the tick bite.Â Other tick-borne diseases in the U.S. include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and tularemia. These can range from mild disease to very severe and even fatal illnesses.
What should you do if you find a tick on you?
If you find a tick burrowed on your skin, remove it using tweezers. Try to grasp the head of the tick (not the body) with the tweezers, and pull straight out. Then clean the area with soap and water. A studyÂ that looked at five methods of removing a tick from a human or an animal found that using Vaseline (petroleum jelly), fingernail polish, a hot match, or rubbing alcohol did not work reliably.Â Pieces ofÂ the tick left in the skin will fall out by themselves. Further attempts at removing them usually leads to significant damage to the skin, so it is better to just leave the retained pieces alone.
You should then contact your doctor â€“ sometimes preventive antibiotics are suggested to reduce the chance of getting Lyme disease. This depends on where you are, how long the tick was embedded in your skin, and other factors. If you subsequently develop symptoms suggestive of a tick-born illness, such as an unexplained rash, fever, weakness, or headache, contact your physician again.
How can you prevent getting bitten by ticks?
Although fall is not the most common season for tick bites, spring will be here soon! And planning ahead to avoid tick bites is the best way to avoid tick-born illness.
Ticks tend to live in grassy and wooded areas and at the edges of woods. They jump or drop onto people as they walk by. Here are things you can do when you are in tick-prone areas to protect yourself:
- Remain on trails and avoid walking through high grass whenever possible.
- Wear light colored clothing â€“ you can see ticks more easily and remove them.
- Wear long pants, and tuck them into your socks.
- Spray your clothing with insect repellant designed for fabrics (permethrin) and use DEET-containing insect repellant on your skin.
- Do regular daily clothing and skin checks to look for ticks.Â Check your entire body.
Have you ever been bitten by a tick?Â What did you do about it?Â Let me know about your encounters with ticks!
Diana Post, M.D.,Â is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a practicing internist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA. She is also a rheumatologist.