It’s vacation time! The months you wait for all year long to play on the beach, visit relatives or go camping with the family. But, with the fun come a few serious risks you want to avoid. Thankfully, the threat of shark attacks—popularized in Jaws—are very uncommon. But, are you up to speed on…ticks?
The big tick trauma everyone knows about is Lyme disease. It hits 300,000+ Americans every year and can cause anything from mild flu to painful meningitis and even chronic nerve damage, joint pains, fatigue and memory impairment. But, this summer the risk is greater than usual…because of mice!
Long story short, Lyme is carried by deer ticks, but in 2017 ticks from mice are adding to the threat, explained Richard S. Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. In a recent NY Times article, he noted that a 2015 acorn boom created a rodent population surge. And, those mice carry Lyme-laden ticks to us.
So, it’s time for a refresher on how to ward off the nasty little bugs and the diseases they carry.
Spotting Lyme Disease
Once bitten, the bacteria causing Lyme usually take 24-48 hours to “swim” from the tick’s gut to the saliva and then enter our bodies. The first sign of a problem may be finding the tick still attached, but often the tick feeds and then drops off. The more typical first sign of infection is a red “target” rash—a circle of red skin with a central clearing that grows slowly from 2-12”—which appears 1-3 weeks after the bite.
But, 20-30% of those infected never see this “classic” sign or even knew they had a bite.
If you are vacationing (or living in) an area with ticks, consider Lyme disease if your child complains of flu-like muscle aches, headaches, joint pain or runs a fever. (Another, odd symptom is droopiness of one side of your child’s mouth…indicating a nerve palsy.)
With Lyme, the good news is that the earlier you are put on antibiotics, the better the chance of a total cure.
Four Tick Illnesses…Even Worse Than Lyme
Besides Lyme disease, sneaky ticks also carry a few other serious—potentially fatal—diseases.
- Ehrlichiosis. This tick-borne problem is half as common as Lyme and occurs mostly in the southeastern and southcentral U.S. Fatigue and flu occur 1-2 weeks after a bite; serious cases can lead to breathing and bleeding problems, as well as organ failure.
- Babesiosis. Found mostly in coastal Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey (and their offshore islands), however cases have also been reported in Georgia, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin and California. Many have no symptoms, others report a bit of “flu.” Rarely, Babesiosis can lead to hemolytic anemia, a serious blood condition.
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. This hits visitors to southeast Arizona and Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and North Carolina—the so-called “Tick Belt.” Infection happens after a bite from a wood or dog tick and can enter the body after just a few hours of being bitten. Within 3-10 days, kids develop fever, headache and vomiting. And, after a couple of days, they often show a spotted rash that classically starts round the hands and feet…and is one of the very rare types of rash that even shows up on the palms and soles. As with Lyme, quick treatment with antibiotics usually provides quick cure.
- Powassan. This new problem has been very rarely noted in the northeast and Great Lakes regions. Fortunately, fewer than 100 cases have been reported. This infection is transmitted very quickly—15 minutes of a bite—and it causes a life-threatening illness with encephalitis and the risk of permanent neurological damage.
Fortunately, all of these can be treated with antibiotics, except Powassan. That one is caused by a virus. Powassan is quite rare, but doctors have real concerns that global warming will trigger more and more tick- and mosquito-borne diseases.
Preventing Tick Bites & Lyme Disease
The best way to protect your family is prevention! So, when heading out on vacation, be sure your crew:
- Wears clothing that covers most of the body when you will be going through grassy or wooded areas. Tuck pant cuffs into your socks to keep ticks from sneaking in from the grass and wear hats if you will be in wooded areas, to keep them from dropping onto your head from above.
- Uses repellents. Bug spray with 20-30% DEET is best for warding off ticks. It’s best to spray it onto your shoes, socks and pant legs, rather than directly on your skin. Never use repellent on babies under 2 months of age, per the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Performs tick checks on your bodies…and your clothes. (And, check your pets, too. Ticks can move from one warm body to another!)
- Brings along a fine tweezer on your trip…just in case you need to remove a tick.
- Calls a local doctor’s office to ask what tick illnesses are common in the area.
How to Do a Thorough Tick Check
It’s important to inspect your children, preferably before coming into the house (including their hair, ears, under arms and yes…even inside their belly buttons…ticks like to go to warm cozy places).
Found a tick? Use your fine tweezer to pull it out, but ALWAYS grab the tick by the mouth—as close to your skin as possible—and pull out slowly. (Don’t use matches or try to suffocate with Vaseline; these old ideas don’t work and can make matters worse!)
Once it is off, put the tick in a little container to save it—in case you get sick and the tick needs to be evaluated for illness. Then, clean the bite area with soap and water…and wash your hands, too!Lastly, have everyone change clothes when they come inside from tick areas and wear fresh clothes every day to keep your gang tick-free, healthy and happy.