5 Important Facts You Should Know About Ticks

Ticks aren't just a nuisance—the number of reported tick-borne illnesses has risen dramatically over the past decade. Here are five things you should know about ticks and how to protect yourself. 

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #286

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.

Now, in the US, your dog can get vaccinated for Lyme but you cannot.

4. There are no vaccines for most tick-borne diseases.

In Europe, there is not yet a safe vaccine to protect against the newer pathogen, the Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever. However, there are immunizations that are effective against tick-borne encephalitis and vaccinations are recommended for anyone living in high risk areas like those near grasslands in Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

In the US, Lyme disease is typically treated with antibiotics. Back in 1998, the Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine that protected against Lyme by neutralizing the bacteria inside the biting tick’s body before it even had a chance to transfer it to you, the bite victim. The vaccine, called LYMErix, prevented the contraction of Lyme in up to 92% of cases with few side effects and in the two years following its approval, ~1.5 million doses were given out.

Unfortunately, public distrust in vaccinations, despite a lack of any supporting evidence for that distrust, led to a large amount of bad press for the LYMErix vaccine. There were reports from recipients of the vaccine that they developed arthritis, but the fraction of LYMErix patients experiencing arthritis was no larger than the fraction of the general population. In other words, people were getting arthritis at the same rate, no matter if they took the vaccine or not. Despite any conclusive evidence that the vaccine was unsafe, it was pulled from the market due to low sales after only three years. Now, in the US, your dog can get vaccinated for Lyme but you cannot.

5. Without vaccines, tick bite prevention is key.

Luckily, there are ways that you can prevent exposure to ticks and tick bites. While out on a hike, avoid tall grass and instead stick to the middle of the path. Wear long sleeves and pants (even if it’s hot!) and use repellant like DEET on your skin which should be reapplied every 2-3 hours. For the more intrepid explorers, you can also treat your clothes with certain chemicals to provide further protection.

If your home borders a wooded area, create a tick-free zone close to the house by keeping you grass mowed short and setting up a moat-like barrier of several feet of wood chips bordering the woods. Get rid of mice—the original transmitters of the diseases like Lyme—and deer who the ticks use for food and as hosts for their eggs.

During tick season, do frequent tick checks to make sure one hasn’t latched on. Favorite spots for ticks include behind the knees, under the armpits, and along your scalp. If you do spot a tick, don’t panic! Remove it carefully with tweezers. Ticks latch on tight, so sometimes mouth parts can be left behind. Although gross, they don’t usually transmit disease. Contrary to popular lore, you cannot suffocate a tick by covering it in alcohol, nail polish, or petroleum jelly. Ticks do just fine with very little oxygen.  

Perhaps the most startling conclusion from the recent report on the rise of tick-borne diseases is that the US is not “fully prepared.” More resources and funding for the state and local health agencies that track and respond to the diseases, as well as for the researchers developing medicines to fight these diseases, will be crucial in stopping their spread.

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Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.