Illnesses From Tick Bites Are Climbing in the US — Here's How to Protect Yourself

One bite could land you in the hospital with a tick-borne illness. Here’s what you need to know.

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If you’re planning on spending any time outdoors this spring and summer, listen up: Each year, tens of thousands of people get sick from tick bites, and experts say tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease are on the rise.

State and local health departments reported a record number of tick-borne disease cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2017 — from almost 49,000 cases in 2016 to 59,000 cases in 2017. That’s about a 22% increase, thanks in part to climate change and the geographic spread of ticks throughout the country.

Lyme is a disease caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which can be transmitted through a bite from a blacklegged tick, says the CDC. Symptoms usually appear within 3 to 30 days after the bite, and they may include fever, fatigue, headache, and a skin rash called erythema migrans that looks like a bullseye. It’s important to treat Lyme, because otherwise it can spread to your joints, your nervous system, and even your heart.

And it’s not just Lyme disease you need to be worried about. In fact, new tick-borne germs have been identified in the last couple of years in the United States, such as the Heartland virus, which typically leads to hospitalization. Heartland virus has been identified in Midwestern and Southern states and may cause fever, tiredness, low appetite, headache, nausea, diarrhea, and muscle or joint pain.

Many factors are at play in the increase of tick-borne illness, including climate change, which has extended tick season. In part, increasing disease is also the result of ticks spreading out geographically. For example, the lone star tick, which can carry germs that can cause several diseases, used to only be found in the southeastern United States — but now this type of tick is on the move into midwestern and northern states, too, according to the CDC. And Lyme-carrying blacklegged ticks are now being found in twice as many U.S. counties as they were 20 years ago.

Common Tick-Borne Illnesses You Should Know About

Some tick-borne illnesses occur more often in certain parts of the United States. Here’s what you need to know about these diseases:

Lyme disease:

Region: Mainly found in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest, with smaller areas of lower risk along the West Coast.

Symptoms: You may have fever, fatigue, headache, and a bullseye-like skin rash.

Treatment: Antibiotics

Babesiosis:

Region: Mainly found in parts of the Northeast and upper Midwest.

Symptoms: Some people have no symptoms, while others may have flu-like symptoms.

Treatment: If you have no symptoms, you may not need treatment, but in some cases it’s treated with antibiotics or antiparasite medications.

Ehrlichiosis:

Region: Mainly found in the Southeast, but also moving into midwestern and northern states.

Symptoms: This bacterial illness can cause flu-like symptoms.

Treatment: Antibiotics

Rocky Mountain spotted fever:

Region: More than 60% of cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever occur in just five states: Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

Symptoms: Early symptoms include fever, bad headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, and a rash. After five days, severe symptoms like altered mental status, coma, necrosis, respiratory problems, and renal failure may occur.

Treatment: Antibiotics

Anaplasmosis:

Region: Mainly found in the upper midwestern and northeastern United States.

Symptoms: Common symptoms include fever, headache, chills, and muscle aches.

Treatment: Antibiotics

Powassan virus disease:

Region: Mostly occurs in the Great Lakes and Northeast regions of the United States.

Symptoms: Many people don’t develop symptoms, but in some cases, it can infect the brain and cause meningitis and severe complications.

Treatment: In severe cases, hospitalization is usually required for treatment with respiratory support, intravenous fluids, and medications to reduce swelling in the brain.

How to Prevent Tick Bites

To avoid infections with Lyme, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and other infections you can get from ticks, you need to, well, avoid ticks. Not all ticks carry disease, of course, but you shouldn’t take the risk.

Here are some steps, per the CDC, you can take to reduce your chances of tick bites:

  • Know where ticks hang out: If you’re spending time outside, chances are you may find yourself in tick territory. Specifically, ticks like to chill in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas. You can even get ticks in your yard or neighborhood, but you should be extra careful when camping, hiking, gardening, or hunting. And when you are hanging out in the great outdoors, try your best to stay out of wooded and brushy areas with high grass. Walk in the center of the trail when hiking.
  • Go nuts with the bug spray: Make your skin uninviting to ticks and other pesky insects with repellent containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone. This handy tool from the Environmental Protection Agency can help you determine the best product for you.
  • Protect your clothes: Heading into ticky areas? Gear up by treating your clothes with products containing 0.5% permethrin. Boots, camping gear, and other clothes can all be treated with permethrin, and even lasts a few washes. There’s also pre-treated clothing and gear you can buy. You can also tuck your pants into your boots and your shirt into your pants to help reduce the chances that a tick will crawl inside your clothes.
  • Check yourself once you get inside: After you get indoors, thoroughly examine your clothes and gear for ticks. You can dry clothes on high heat for 10 minutes to kill any ticks that may be hiding on dry clothing. Know that cold or warm water isn’t enough to kill ticks.
  • Do a body check: Shower soon after you get inside, but first check these spots on your body for ticks after you come inside (don’t forget to check kiddos and pets):
  • Under the arms
  • In and around the ears
  • Inside belly button
  • Back of the knees
  • In and around the hair
  • Between the legs
  • Around the waist
  • Remove any ticks — the right way: Yes, there is a wrong way to get that thing off of you. You need to remove it ASAP, because ticks need to be attached for about 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease in most cases, but other infections can be transferred in just a few minutes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Other infections can be transferred in a few hours or even a few minutes. but take a second to grab a pair of tweezers instead. Grasp the tick with the tweezers as close to your skin as you can, then pull it straight out (don’t twist or jerk). It’s also a good idea to save the tick in a sealed container to take with you to the doctor, or at least take a photo of the tick — your doctor may want to see it in certain cases. You can also submit the picture to TickSpotters to help ID the type of tick that bit you.

If you have been exposed to ticks, even if you don’t remember a bite, watch for fever, rash, or flu-like symptoms in the weeks following. If there’s any doubt, it never hurts to see a doctor to rule out or treat tick-borne illness.

See more helpful articles:

What a Tick Expert Wants You to Know

Identifying 8 Common Bug Bites

The Best Way to Tackle a Tick