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5 Important Facts You Should Know About Ticks

Here are five important facts summarizing what you should know to protect yourself against ticks, from the startling rise in tick-borne diseases to the state of vaccinations.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #286

image of a tick

As the weather warms, stories of ticks and the diseases they carry become more prevalent in the news, from stories of a coming "tickpocalypse" to an unforgettable photo from the Center for Disease Control in the United States comparing ticks to the size of the seeds on a poppy seed muffin. Should you be worried about ticks? Here are five important facts summarizing what you should know to protect yourself against ticks.

1. Ticks and tick-borne illnesess are on the rise.

In a recent report, the Center for Disease Control in the United States noted that in 2004, 27,000 people were diagnosed with diseases from mosquitos, ticks, and fleas. That number jumped to 96,000 diagnoses in 2016, more than tripling over the last twelve years. 60% of those diagnoses were from tick-borne diseases, and of the nine new pathogens identified in that time, seven were tick-borne.

The authors of the report note that warmer temperatures mean there are larger swaths of the country where ticks can survive and thrive. Efforts at suburban reforestation bring woods, and thus ticks, closer to where people live. More air travel means the little arachnids can be transported to new areas as well. A lack of new vaccines in the recent past also contributes to the rise in infections of tick-borne diseases.

2. Most cases of Lyme disease go undiagnosed.

There are an estimated 300,000 new cases of Lyme disease in the United States each year, but only 30,000 of those cases are reported to the CDC. Lyme disease can go easily undiagnosed because the symptoms tend to be highly varied and can depend on where the tick bite occurs. A telltale rash often forms at the sight of the bite but this rash can go unnoticed if hidden in a spot like under the hair or your scalp. The rash also fades after several days erasing the evidence if not caught early enough. Many tick-borne diseases are characterized early on by flu-like symptoms and then later by joint pain and eventual neurological problems.

In the United States, the CDC notes that 95% of cases of Lyme disease are reported from 14 states in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes. Geographic distributions do vary with tick type. For example, the lone star tick, an aggressive, disease-carrying variety, is not typically found west of Texas, while the American dog tick is found in all 50 states. While the prevailing tick species, and their associated diseases, are different in Europe than in the US, the European CDC notes similar variations in geographic distribution and high risk zones.

3. Ticks carry more than Lyme disease.

In the US, we hear the most about Lyme disease, likely because it is the most common tick-borne illness, but ticks are carriers of many other diseases as well, including Rocky mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, rabbit fever, Powassan virus, and anaplasmosis. In Europe, ticks can transmit tick-borne encephalitis and the Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever.

Tick bites have also been linked to the onset of potentially life-threatening allergic reactions to alpha gal, a sugar found in beef, pork, venison, and lamb. That’s right—a tiny tick bite could mean the end of your red meat consumption.

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