Understanding and preventing tick bites

Child playing with a dog outside

As people spend more time outdoors, so do many insects and pests. Among them are ticks, which are small bloodsucking parasites and arthropods.

Some diseases you can get from a tick bite are Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and tularemia.

One of the biggest things to keep in mind when thinking about the risk of tick bites is your location. Different regions in the U.S. are home to various types of ticks. The type or species of a tick determines what diseases it may carry.

NIH MedlinePlus magazine spoke with two officials at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to find out more about tick bites, how to avoid them, and new research that could increase our understanding of how to treat tick-related conditions.

Types of ticks

The deer tick (Ixodes scapulars) is found mainly in the Eastern and upper Midwestern regions of the U.S. It can cause conditions like Lyme disease and babesiosis.

The dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) is found in the Eastern half of the U.S. and can cause diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. There have been reports of dog ticks as far west as California.

The lone star tick (Ambylomma americanum) lives in the Northeast and Midwest regions of the U.S. It carries diseases such as ehrlichiosis and Southern tick associated rash illness.

Location, location, location

“The east coast here in the U.S., parts of the south and Midwest, and even in California you have the major [tick-borne] disease, which is Lyme disease,” said José Ribeiro, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Vector Biology Section of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research in NIAID’s Division of Intramural Research. “People should be aware of ticks and where they can encounter them. In other parts of the country you have other diseases, like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in the Rocky Mountains, and so on.”

Online maps that show tick activity in different regions of the country can be helpful in understanding the risk in your region.

Prevention is a top priority

Maliha Ilias, Ph.D., Lyme Disease Research Program Officer in NIAID’s Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, said it is important to prevent ticks from coming into contact with your skin.

Dr. Ilias discussed that there are ways to prevent exposure to ticks. She noted that the best way to do this is wear clothing that covers your arms and legs; tuck your pants into your socks or even put tape around openings in clothing so ticks have no access; and wear light-colored clothing to also help you see if a tick is on you. When you are in the woods, keep to the center of the trail, where ticks are less likely to be (ticks tend to stay in shrubs and bushes).

As soon as you are home, check yourself or have a family member help check you for ticks. Use a fine-tooth comb through your hair and check folds of the skin. You should also shower and wash your clothes at a high heat so any ticks on you are killed.

Stay calm

If you do find a tick on yourself or a family member, be sure to stay calm.

“I think the most important thing for folks to know is that if they find the tick on themselves, don’t panic,” Dr. Ilias said, noting that it typically takes 36 hours for the bacteria that causes Lyme diseases to travel from the tick gut to its salivary glands and into the host.

It is also important to remove the tick properly. “There is a lot of folklore about how to take a tick out of your skin. Some people even talk about having a lighted cigarette close by, things like that,” Dr. Ribeiro said. “The most important thing is just to use appropriate forceps such as tweezers. Grab the whole tick and pull it out.”

Saliva is a tick’s best friend

A tick’s saliva (or spit) is important in its ability to feed. A combination of compounds in a tick’s saliva stops human blood from clotting while the tick feeds.

“What we’re seeing now is ticks change the composition of their saliva every few days. So the cocktail that they’re showing on Monday will be completely different from the cocktail that will be showing up on Friday,” Dr. Ribeiro said.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health are studying the saliva of arthropods to see if there is a way to create a vaccine that will affect the saliva. A current study is looking at a vaccine that works against the saliva of sand flies, so the parasite cannot establish itself at the site of the initial bite. This sort of vaccine will be harder to develop for ticks, as the tick is constantly changing the composition of its saliva.

Early removal is key

The sooner you remove a tick, the better. It takes time for infections to reach a person’s blood stream, especially Lyme disease. A tick needs to remain attached for 36 hours before Lyme disease can be transmitted, so remove any ticks as quickly as you can.

However, you may not always know if you’ve been bitten by a tick, and therefore won’t know to keep an eye out for symptoms of tickborne disease.

Looking forward, Dr. Ilias noted the importance of a sensitive and specific diagnostic test for Lyme disease, particularly to detect it early. She added that Lyme disease can be effectively treated if it is diagnosed early.

Tick bite prevention

Tick-borne diseases occur worldwide, including in your own backyard. To help protect yourself and your family, you should:

  • Use a chemical repellent with DEET, permethrin or picaridin.
  • Wear light-colored protective clothing.
  • Tuck pant legs into socks.
  • Avoid tick-infested areas.
  • Check yourself, your children, and your pets daily for ticks and carefully remove any ticks.

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