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 also 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 it’s important to avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaves this time of year. If it can’t be avoided, 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 up to 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 their children and pets as well. 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’re bitten, there is no reason to panic. Not all ticks carry disease. You should immediately remove the tick with fine-tipped tweezers grasping the tick close to the skin. Pull upward on the tick rather than twist or jerk it; otherwise the mouth can break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, you can pull the mouth out with the tweezers as well. Then clean the area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub or soap and water.
Tick bites and allergies
A new study from Virginia Commonwealth University has 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 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. Researchers say anaphylaxis caused by meat is the first severe food allergy that reacts to a carbohydrate rather than a protein. If a person has a meat allergy, they need to avoid all mammalian meat, including beef, pork lamb and venison.