Since we were kids, romps through the woods have always come with a warning: "Watch out for ticks!" These teeny-tiny little arachnids are the almost-invisible bogeymen of the summer hike. But even though finding a tick on yourself doesn't automatically mean you'll get Lyme disease, ticks can be even more dangerous than you think.
Before we get into the scary stuff, a couple disclaimers. First, ticks aren't like mosquitoes; they don't transmit disease via a split-second bite. It can take up to 24 hours for the bacteria that cause Lyme disease to work their way into your bloodstream, and ticks can spend up to a few days on your skin feeding. So if you find and remove a tick within a few hours of being in the woods - even if they've already bit you - you'll be fine. (If a tick has been on you for longer than about 36 hours, though, your doctor will probably want to give you some antibiotics as a precaution anyway.) And even if you're bitten by an infected tick, the odds of getting Lyme disease from it are only about 1 to 3 percent.
That said, ticks can be vectors for plenty of non-Lyme diseases, some of which can be pretty catastrophic if left untreated. So err on the side of caution, inspect yourself and your clothes thoroughly after any time spent in the woods, and be safe!
Lyme disease is just one disease they can transmit
Most people associate ticks with Lyme disease, but in reality that's just one of many diseases that they can transmit, and it's only transmitted by one type of tick (the deer tick, also known as the blacklegged tick). The deer tick is also only prevalent in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, while just about every wooded region of the country has ticks that are native to it.
Ticks aren't born carrying diseases; they pick them up from animals they bite and pass them along, so they can be a vector for a wide variety of viruses and bacteria. In fact, a New Jersey man recently died after being bitten by a tick carrying the Powassan virus.
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Several types of ticks can spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever
The Rocky Mountain wood tick, American dog tick and brown dog tick are primarily found in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, North Carolina and Oklahoma, and these are the species that most frequently spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a bacterial disease than can be potentially fatal. Symptoms include nausea, headache, fever, rash, vomiting, muscle and stomach pain and lack of appetite. It can be treated with antibiotics.
They can spread multiple diseases at once
If you happen to get bitten by a deer tick, lucky you! It's not just Lyme disease you might get, but if the tick is carrying multiple diseases at the same time, you can be infected with all of them. Here are a few:
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Symptoms of anaplasmosis, which can be spread by both the deer and Western blacklegged tick, can come on within a week or two of exposure and include chills, muscle aches, fever and headache. If untreated, it can lead to organ failure, respiratory failure and bleeding problems (and even death), but thankfully it's treatable with the antibiotic doxycycline.
Babesia is a genus of microbial parasites that reproduce within red blood cells, and they can be carried by deer ticks. The infection itself can vary greatly; some people can be entirely asymptomatic, but other symptoms can range from headache and chills to respiratory or liver failure, enlarged liver or spleen, and coma. It's relatively rare and tricky to diagnose, but more and more doctors know to be on the lookout for it.
Closely related to anaplasmosis, erlichiosis is a bacterial illness that can cause fever, headache, chills, aches, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, joint pain and rash. The body is occasionally capable of fighting off the disease on its own, but a course of antibiotics will clear it up.
They can cause Southern tick-associated rash illness
This disease is spread by the lone star tick, which is native to the eastern United States and Mexico. It starts with a bull's-eye-shaped rash and has other similarities to Lyme disease (fever, muscle and joint pain, headache). STARI can usually be successfully treated with antibiotics.
Another disease they spread is called tick-borne relapsing fever
Tick-borne relapsing fever is spread by the soft tick, a type of tick prevalent in mountainous areas of the western U.S. The disease is particularly linked to sleeping in rustic cabins. Symptoms are also similar to Lyme disease, and include muscle and joint pain, fever and headache; the main difference is that symptoms generally follow a "three days on, seven days off" pattern (hence the "recurring") until it's treated with antibiotics.
They can also spread tularemia
The dog tick, the wood tick and the lone star tick are all capable of transmitting tularemia, a rare disease most commonly associated with being near infected farm animals. Symptoms vary greatly, but can include an ulcer at the infection site, abdominal pain, fever, throat pain, vomiting, conjunctivitis and chest pain. It's also treatable with antibiotics.
Western ticks can transmit Colorado tick fever
Colorado tick fever can be transmitted by ticks in the western U.S., especially Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, and because it's a virus, no specific treatments exist. Symptoms can include fever, chills, headache and lethargy that can last for weeks. It rarely results in death, however.
They can survive long periods without oxygen
Ticks can survive submerged in water for up to two to three days, so don't expect to be able to wash them off or kill them in the washing machine (You can get them off of yourself with duct tape, or a fine-pointed tweezer if they've already latched on, and 15 minutes in a hot dryer should get them off of clothes).
You can get Lyme disease without its telltale rash
If you notice a tick on you but don't develop the telltale bull's-eye-shaped rash, don't assume that you're in the clear; it's still possible to develop Lyme disease. Be on the lookout for symptoms including fever, chills and aches and pains, and if you notice any, go to the doctor immediately. And there are plenty of other innocent-looking bug bites that are actually dangerous as well.
There's no human Lyme disease vaccine
A vaccine for Lyme disease was released in 1998, and it protected against the disease about 80 percent of the time. It was pulled from the market after complaints about side effects and adverse reactions, however. There's actually a vaccine against Lyme disease for dogs, but that's only because testing is much less stringent for dogs than humans.
If untreated, Lyme disease can be debilitating
Once Lyme disease is diagnosed (which can be tricky because it may take up to a month to develop), it can be treated with antibiotics fairly easily. But if left untreated, it can lead to arthritis, neurological conditions like facial palsy, cognitive issues like memory loss, and irregular heartbeat.
The lone star tick can cause an especially devastating allergy
It may sound completely bizarre, but a bite from the lone star tick can lead to an especially inconvenient allergy: meat. These ticks can be found in the Southeast, Texas, Iowa and parts of New England, and bites from them have been found to trigger an allergic reaction to a carbohydrate called alpha-gal that's found in cows, pigs, sheep and other animals. A study last year by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that more than 8,000 cases have been reported, proving that, for more reasons than you might have realized, ticks are a major summer health danger you need to be prepared for.
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