|Vol. 21, No. 13||July 15, 1999|
Outdoor Activities May Be a Risk for Tick-Borne Diseases
Camping, hiking, backpacking, enjoying picnics and time outdoors - these are some of the best features of warm weather months. Ticks, along with the disease they may bring, are among the worst. A bite from an infected tick can cause illnesses such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever or ehrlichiosis.
"In Texas, the Lone Star tick is the one likely to carry disease," says Julie Rawlings of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Surveillance Division at Texas Department of Health (TDH). While many tick species prefer attaching to an animal and staying there, this variety, common throughout the south and central United States, readily feeds on human blood.
The most frequently diagnosed tick-borne problem in the country, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can cause skin, joint, heart and nervous system problems. Named after the town of Lyme in Connecticut where it was first described in 1976, the disease initially causes flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, headache, fever, stiff neck and joint pain. Sometimes these symptoms come with skin lesions or rashes, usually around the site of the bite.
Treatment is with antibiotics. Untreated, however, the disease may severely damage joints, the heart and the nervous system.
In Texas, 580 reports from 1990 to 1998 met the current case definition of Lyme disease, with most of these in the north central part of the state. About 1,100 other cases are possibly Lyme disease. "Fortunately, only about 1 to 2 percent of ticks carry the Lyme disease bacterium," Rawlings says.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be deadly if not treated quickly. Symptoms resemble flu with headaches, muscle aches and high fever along with a rash. Symptoms of ehrlichiosis, which was first recognized about 12 years ago, also are flu-like. This disease can occasionally be fatal.
"The best prevention for any of these diseases is to avoid ticks," Rawlings says. She advises keeping fleas and ticks off your pets - they also can get Lyme disease - and discouraging unwanted animals such as rats, mice and stray dogs and cats from coming into the home environment.
To protect yourself from ticks:
If you do find a tick on your skin, remove it right away. "There are a lot of old wives' tales about removing ticks," Rawlings says. "Some say use petroleum jelly or touch the tick with a hot match. But those procedures are not the best."
To remove an attached tick, use tweezers to grasp the tick at the skin surface. If tweezers are not available, use a tissue to protect your fingers from possible exposure to the tick's body fluids. With a steady motion, gently pull the tick straight out. Do not crush the tick's body. Have patience; it may take time to remove the tick properly.
Live ticks may be submitted for identification and testing to the TDH Laboratory. "The ticks should be placed in a small container such as an old pill bottle with the cap tightly on," Rawlings says. "They should never be placed loose in an envelope." Call the TDH Laboratory at 512-458-7615 for information on proper ways to submit live ticks.
A vaccine to protect against Lyme disease is available for people from ages 15 to 70. Contact your health care provider for more information about the vaccine.
"If people have any flu-like symptoms - with or without a rash - after contact with a tick, they should get medical attention," Rawlings says.
©2006 Texas Medical Center