Little Bug, Dangerous Bite: Avoiding Ticks and Lyme Disease

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Ticks are tiny, but their bites can pack a gigantic wallop.

These small, spider-like arachnids feed off the blood of humans and animals, sometimes passing along the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in the process. If not treated quickly with antibiotics, Lyme disease can lead to painful and long-lasting health problems.

Meet the Culprit

The bacteria responsible for Lyme disease is carried by the black-legged deer tick. Young ticks (nymphs) are the most likely to carry the germ. This poses a challenge when you check yourself for ticks, because the nymphs are very small — about the size of a poppy seed. 

Deer ticks are found on deer, rodents and birds, who often leave them behind on leaves, bushes and grasses as they traipse around outdoors. Then, unsuspecting humans head out to enjoy the same areas, and the ticks hitch a ride on their clothing and skin.

Not all deer ticks carry Lyme disease. Depending on the location, anywhere from fewer than 1 percent to more than 50 percent of the ticks are infected. Still, it pays to be cautious.

Know the Symptoms

The first symptom of Lyme disease is usually what appears as a bullseye rash. This affects 70 to 80 percent of people bitten. 

“It's a round red patch with a white color inside,” explains Ziad Khatib, MD, internal medicine specialist with First Care Family Medical in Beavercreek. “If you see that, you really should seek health care with your physician.” 

Get more advice from Dr. Khatib on insect bites. Click play to watch the video or read the transcript.

What are the most common bug bites and their symptoms?

So the common bug bites coming into the spring season are the spider bites and some of the tick bites. Those are mostly with us increasing our outdoor activities, going to the outside. They usually will manifest as red spots that are itchy on the skin and depending on which bug causes the bite they will have different manifestations. The one we worry about the most are the tick bites. Most of them are fine but in certain bites you get something called Lyme disease. It's very important if you see that it looks like a target. It's a round red patch with a white color inside. If you see that, you really should seek healthcare with your physician.

To avoid bug bites, some of the simple things to do is if you know that you were going out hiking or working in the backyard make sure that you wear long sleeve shirts, long pants instead of shorts. If you're going out hiking you really should talk in your pants into your socks so that no bugs can go in or give you those bug bites. Using some bug repellants are very helpful. But always apply it on top of the sunscreen, not before the sunscreen and do not apply it to your face.

 

As the infection spreads, you may also experience these problems, with or without a rash: 

  • A fever
  • A headache
  • Body aches
  • A stiff neck
  • Fatigue

Prevention is Simple

Preventing tick bites is fairly simple, according to Dr. Khatib. “If you know that you are going out hiking or working in the backyard, make sure that you wear long sleeve shirts, and long pants instead of shorts,” he advises. “If you're going out hiking, you really should tuck your pants into your socks, so that no bugs can go in or give you those bug bites.”

“Using some bug repellant is very helpful,” he adds, “but always apply it on top of the sunscreen, not before the sunscreen, and do not apply it to your face.” You should also consider spraying it on your clothing, shoes and camping gear.

However, if you’d just rather dodge the problem altogether, do your best to avoid tick-infested areas. This means:

  • Not brushing up against grasses, bushes and other plants
  • Not walking through dead leaves and other ground vegetation
  • Not sitting on fallen logs
  • Avoiding areas with large numbers of deer and rodents
The first symptom of Lyme disease is usually what appears as a bullseye rash.

Find That Tick

If you do decide to brave the great outdoors, make sure you check yourself for ticks immediately when you’re done. Use both a hand-held and a full-length mirror to view all of your skin, and pay special attention to areas with hair. Make sure to thoroughly check the following:

  • Clothing and shoes
  • Scalp
  • Behind the ears
  • Armpits
  • Belly button
  • Waist
  • Groin
  • Backs of the knees
  • Camping gear, like backpacks and sleeping bags

Also, toss your clothing into the dryer. Putting clothing or bedding into a clothes dryer for one hour at high heat has been shown to kill ticks.

Get Rid of It Quickly

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If you do find a tick on your body, the Centers for Disease Control offer this advice on removing it:

  • Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
  • Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. 
  • After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
  • Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag or container, wrapping it tightly in tape or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.

The Longer You Wait, the Worse It Gets

It’s important to get help as soon as possible if you think you’ve been infected by a tick. According to the National Institutes of Health, the sooner treatment begins, the quicker and more complete the recovery. Left untreated, Lyme disease can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system. 

To make a diagnosis, your health care provider will base her diagnosis on your symptoms, whether you were recently in a tick-infested environment, and your medical history. She may order lab tests, but these may not give a clear answer until you have been infected for at least a few weeks.

After treatment, some people may still experience muscle or joint aches and nervous system problems. This is called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). While long-term antibiotics have not been shown to help with PTLDS, there are other ways to manage the symptoms, and most people get better with time.

Small Steps: Spray Up Before You Go Out
Make it a habit to use insect repellent. You’ll reduce the risk of getting mosquito bites and the diseases that might come with them.