What to watch for with tick bites

Summer is here—and so are the ticks! Ticks have been in the news much lately because of increased numbers related to the mild winter and several cases of tick-transmitted diseases.

In our state, there are several types of ticks that carry disease that can affect humans: dog ticks (either the brown dog tick or American dog tick), the blacklegged deer tick and the lone star tick.

Dog ticks, which can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, prefer to feed on dogs and so can typically be found in close proximity to dog habitats, including kennels, veterinarian offices and outdoor areas frequented by dogs. Deer ticks, which transmit Lyme disease, prefer to live in wooded areas. The lone star tick (identifiable by a single white spot on its back) does transmit some illness but is rarely implicated in disease relative to the other two species.

While most cases of tick bites do not lead to illness, it’s important that parents be able to recognize the signs of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease and take quick action if necessary.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever can begin two to 14 days after a tick bite. A tick needs to be attached only a few hours to transmit the disease. Symptoms generally start with fever, accompanied by some combination of headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and rash (which occurs several days into the illness on the hands and feet). This condition can be fatal, so it’s important to see your doctor at the appearance of the first symptoms after a known tick bite, because the disease is treatable with antibiotics if caught early.

Lyme disease is generally not fatal but can be debilitating and chronic if left untreated. Transmission for Lyme disease requires about 36 hours. In that time, a tick will become engorged with blood, so an unengorged deer tick is very unlikely to have transmitted any Lyme causing organisms. Symptoms include a very characteristic “bulls-eye” rash, fever, body aches, joint aches and fatigue. Lyme disease is treatable with antibiotics, so early recognition of symptoms is again important.

Ticks can be removed by taking a pair of tweezers, grasping the head of the tick as close as possible to the skin and pulling the tick straight away from the skin. Avoid use of matches, noxious oils, etc as these are not necessarily effective and can cause burns or skin irritation.

If you are bitten by a tick, it’s important that you be able to identify the type, because the diseases transmitted vary based on tick species. Because dog ticks and blacklegged deer ticks can look similar when fully engorged, the simplest way to tell them apart may be the size of their mouth parts. (The deer tick ‘mouth’ is much longer.) The CDC has additional identification pointers, including photos that show how ticks’ appearance can dramatically change as they engorge.

Saving a removed tick for identification may be helpful so keep it for several days just in case any questionable symptoms develop.

You can protect yourself from ticks by using DEET products, spraying clothes with permethrin products indicated for this purpose, checking head to toe for ticks and showering after being in wooded areas, and treating outdoor areas with approved insecticides.

We at Pediatric Associates–Simpsonville wish you and your family a fun, safe and tick-free summer!

Steven E. Lookadoo Jr., MD, is a board-certified pediatrician at Pediatric Associates–Simpsonville. If you need help finding a doctor for your child, call 1-844-Prisma Health-DOCS (447-3627) or click here

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