Tick-borne Illness: Tips to Stay Safe

young woman with tick on her neck

Summer means more time spent outdoors, and with that comes the threat of tick-borne illness.

According to Tara Flynn, MD, urgent care physician at University of Missouri Health Care, ticks come out when the weather warms up, with late June to early July bringing the peak number of patients. Flynn offers advice to help you and your family stay safe this summer.

Stay Vigilant About Ticks

  1. Check yourself. “If you are outside, especially wooded areas, around cats or dogs, check yourself for ticks,” Flynn explained. “Most have to be attached for several hours to transmit these bugs to you.” When checking for ticks, pay special attention to underarms, ears, belly button, behind knees, between legs, waist, hairline and scalp.
  2. Check your kids. If your kids are outside for an extended period of time or around outdoor pets, check them at bath time that night. Remove any attached ticks right away. “In case-controlled studies, ages five to nine are at the highest risk group by age for Rocky Mountain spotted fever,” Flynn said.
  3. Use repellent. For extended time outdoors, especially if you’re camping, Flynn suggests using repellants or permethrin impregnated clothing. The CDC recommends repellent containing 20 percent or more DEET, picaridin or IR3535. You can treat clothing and outdoor gear with repellent as well.
  4. Treat your pets. Dogs and cats that spend time outdoors should be treated for ticks, per their veterinarians’ instructions.
  5. Shower when you come indoors.

If you happen to find a tick on you or a family member, follow these steps to remove a tick.

  1. Use tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible.
  2. Pull straight up with steady, even pressure. Avoid twisting the tick, which can cause parts to break off and remain in the skin.
  3. Once the tick is removed, clean the area (and your hands) thoroughly.

Common tick-born diseases

In Missouri in particular, ticks are known to carry ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, though other tick-borne diseases have appeared as well. When it comes to common tick-borne diseases in mid-Missouri, watch for the symptoms below.

Ehrlichiosis

  • 1- to 2-week incubation period
  • Symptoms include: fever, headache, chills, malaise, muscle pain, gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite), confusion, conjunctival injection, rash (more common in children)

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

  • 2- to 14-day incubation period
  • Symptoms include: fever, chills, severe headache, malaise, gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, diarrhea, abdominal tenderness), discomfort or pain to the eyes when exposed to light, cranial or peripheral motor nerve paralysis or sudden transient deafness, maculopapular rash (flat pink, non-itchy spots on wrists, forearms and ankles that may spread to the trunk), petechial rash (red to purple spots, considered a sign of progression to severe disease)

When to see a doctor

Although a tick bite is a good indication to watch for disease, it’s not always the first symptom. “Some studies quote up to 60 percent of people with a proven tick-borne disease don’t recall the tick bite,” Flynn said. “The majority of tick bites go unnoticed due to anesthetics in tick spit. Here’s where the doctor needs to be aware of what diseases are possible in the patient’s geographic area.”

Tara Flynn, MD
Tara Flynn, MD

At MU Health Care, Flynn says the medical team does a great job of detecting diseases early. “The most common [tick-borne disease] in Columbia is ehrlichiosis, and I am proud to say that our family physicians, internists, and pediatricians are adept at diagnosing ehrlichiosis in a timely fashion in the outpatient setting such as at our urgent care facility.”

Still, she stresses the importance of calling your doctor if you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms. With Rocky Mountain spotted fever, for instance, early treatment is tied to better outcomes, as mortality rates increase the longer someone waits to be treated.

“If you are experiencing fever, headache, muscle aches, I recommend seeking medical care,” Flynn said.

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