Ticks and Their Bites: A HealthCentral Explainer

ATsai Editor
  • During the summer months, many of us become more aware of ticks and worry about how to avoid their bites. Though Lyme disease is most often tied to tick bites, it’s not the only illness they can cause. Here are things to keep in mind if you’re worried about ticks or have been bitten by a tick. 


    What is a tick?

    Ticks are insects that look similar to spiders, and live in wooded areas, brushy fields and near homes. They survive by biting and eating blood from “hosts,” which can include humans and animals. Ticks are able to pass infections from host to host, which is how certain diseases are spread. There are steps you can take to avoid ticks and things to do if you’ve already been bitten. 

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    How to avoid ticks

    From April to September ticks are most active, so if you want to avoid them, you should stay away from wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaves during those months. If you do go in those areas, however, you can protect yourself by walking in the center of trails or using insect repellent with chemicals such as DEET or permethrin. DEET can be applied directly to the skin, and you should use a repellent that contains 20 percent or more DEET. The protection will last for several hours. You can also use permethrin on clothing, which will last through several washes. It’s important to use it on boots, pants, socks and even tents. 


    When you return from a wooded area, make sure to shower as soon as possible to wash off ticks. Then conduct a full body check in front of a mirror. Parents should be diligent about checking children and pets. Then tumble clothes or other gear in the dryer on high heat to kill any ticks. 


    What to do if you’ve been bitten

    If you are bitten, there is no reason to panic. Not all ticks carry disease. You should immediately remove the tick with fine-tipped tweezers, grasping it close to the skin. Pull upward on the tick rather than twisting or jerking it; otherwise, the mouth can break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, you can pull the mouth out with the tweezers. Then clean the area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub or soap and water. 


    Tick bites and allergies

    A study from Virginia Commonwealth University discovered that some tick bites can cause a delayed allergic reaction to red meat. Originally noticed in the southeastern part of the United States, researchers set out to determine what was causing this delayed – but potentially life-threatening – allergic reaction to meat. They examined three patient case studies and found that antibodies to a carbohydrate called alpha-gal were being produced in the blood after a tick bite. 


    Interestingly, alpha-gal is also found in meat. After a person is bitten by a tick--the lone star tick in particular--the person’s immune system releases histamine in response to the alpha-gal, which can induce hives or anaphylaxis. In this case, the reaction is delayed rather than immediate. If a person does develop a meat allergy, they should avoid all mammalian meat, including beef, pork lamb and venison.


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    The female lone star tick is an aggressive insect and has a white spot on the center of the back. They are also able to travel long distances in search of blood.


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    What about new tick bacteria?

    In 2011, researchers discovered that a new species of tick-borne Ehrlichia bacterium was present in the United States, specifically Wisconsin and Minnesota. It was previously thought to exist only in eastern Europe and parts of Asia. This type of infection causes fever, headache, fatigue and in some cases, nausea and vomiting. 


    What about Lyme disease?


    The Lyme disease bacterium is spread through infected blacklegged ticks, or deer ticks. The tick typically must be attached to the body for 36 to 48 hours or more before Lyme disease is spread, which is why adult ticks are less likely to spread the disease. Most people are infected by “nymphs,” which are immature ticks that are tiny and hard to see. Adult ticks are easier to see, and more likely to be removed early. 


    Symptoms of Lyme disease include a rash that gradually expands, which may have a bulls-eye appearance, and feels warm to the touch. Lesions can appear on the body along with fever, chills, fatigue, headache, muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes. Sometimes a rash is not present


    Antibiotics are used to treat Lyme disease, and if taken in the early stages, the patient will usually recover quickly with no complications.


    If left untreated the infection can cause Bell’s palsy, a loss of muscle tone on the face, severe headache and neck stiffness due to meningitis, pain and swelling in the large joints, and other shooting pains. These symptoms can last well after the bacteria are cleared, which is called Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS). Approximately 10 to 20 percent of patients have persistent or recurring symptoms.




    Sarah Glynn. (2012, July 25). "Tick Bites May Cause Red Meat Allergy." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/248211.php.


    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, July 26). “Ticks.” Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ticks/.


    Sy Kraft. (2011, August 4). "New European, Asian Tick Bacteria Emerges In The United States." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/232284.php.


    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011, November 15). “Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease.” Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/lyme/signs_symptoms/index.html

Published On: August 07, 2012