How to assess your risk for illness after removing a tick

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Milder winters have allowed tick populations to increase and expand. When temperatures drop later in the year tick larvae hatched in late fall have more time to find a host and feed, increasing their odds of survival and boosting populations. Adult populations have also experienced higher winter survival rates as temperatures between 2 F and 14 F are required to reduce tick numbers. During cold spells when temperatures drop that low, tick populations fall by about 20%. Without those cold spells, populations maintain their numbers through winter and continue to grow at increasingly rapid rates when the weather warms.

Warmer temperatures also mean increased tick activity throughout the winter. When the ground is not covered by snow and temperatures are above freezing humans are most likely to encounter a tick. Many ticks, including the Lyme-disease-carrying blacklegged deer tick, remain active throughout the winter and only seek cover when temperatures drop below freezing.

Even more troubling, researchers have reported increased survival rates and activity in blacklegged deer ticks infected with Lyme disease in colder weather. In a recent study, 79% of infected blacklegged deer ticks survived winter temperatures ranging from -18 C (-0.4 F) to 20 C (68 F), compared to a 50% survival rate seen in uninfected blacklegged deer ticks. Researchers believe the boosted survival rates could translate to an increased incidence of disease. The same study also found infected ticks were more likely to become active after a cold spell and more than twice as active during fluctuating winter temperatures as uninfected ticks and ticks observed in constant temperatures. The results suggest infected ticks have better odds of finding a host in winter conditions.

Periods of warm weather followed by periods of extreme cold are most effective in reducing tick populations because ticks are lured to the surface without time to take cover before a deep freeze. Without these periods of harsh winter weather, tick populations have been able to grow and expand into new regions of the United States and Canada. Outdoorsman, hikers, pet owners and those living near high volumes of ticks are more and more likely to come into contact with them.

Understanding risk and reducing exposure

Warmer winters mean more interactions between humans and ticks, but they don’t have to mean increased odds of contracting a tickborne illness. We just need to be more knowledgeable about the types of ticks in our region, more aware of the prevalence of disease in local tick populations and more vigilant about checking for ticks after spending time outdoors. Understanding risk and reducing exposure are key to avoiding tickborne diseases.

Getting to know the types of ticks in your region. There are over 800 species of ticks worldwide and over 90 that can be found within the U.S. Different ticks transmit different diseases. Knowing what types of ticks live in your region will help you determine which tickborne illnesses you’re most at risk to contract and what kinds of symptoms to expect.

The blacklegged deer tick, American dog tick, lone star tick, Asian longhorned tick and Gulf Coast tick have been found in Ohio. Twenty years ago, the American dog tick was the only tick in Ohio considered to be of medical importance to humans, pets and livestock. Now, American dog ticks have established populations statewide, blacklegged deer ticks can be found statewide with the highest density populations in the eastern side of the state, lone star ticks have established populations in the southern portion of the state, Gulf Coast ticks are being found more and more frequently in southwest Ohio and Asian longhorned ticks are expanding across southeast Ohio.

These tick species transmit numerous tickborne illnesses, including anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis and STARI. Additionally, lone star ticks have been known to cause red meat allergies in some people and Asian longhorned ticks have been known to cause livestock deaths death through blood loss due to exsanguination.

You can find more information on identifying the most common disease-carrying ticks in Ohio, the diseases they carry and the symptoms of those diseases here.

Being able to correctly identify ticks in your region will help you begin to assess your risk for the associated diseases they transmit. In Ohio, our biggest concerns are Rocky Mountain spotted fever (transmitted by the American dog tick), Ehrlichiosis (lone star tick), Lyme disease (transmitted by the blacklegged deer tick), anaplasmosis (transmitted by the blacklegged deer tick) and babesiosis (transmitted by the blacklegged deer tick).

After finding and removing a tick, the first step in assessing risk is identifying the tick. Next, you’ll want to determine the prevalence of diseases in tick populations around your location.

Determining the prevalence of tickborne diseases in your area. State health departments track and provide information for vectorborne disease surveillance throughout the year. By navigating to your state health department’s website or using a browser to search for your state followed by “vectorborne disease surveillance update” you can access this information.

The Ohio Department of Health tracks and reports tick instances on two fronts. First, it reports the number of ticks of each species identified and breaks those numbers down by county, allowing users to get an idea of how prevalent different tick species are in their county. Then, it reports the total number of cases of each tickborne disease and the frequency of disease cases in each county, which allows users to gauge what percentage of the tick population in their county may be carrying diseases.

Check out Ohio’s 2022 tickborne disease data here.

If there is a high population of a certain species of tick near you, you’re more likely to encounter that type of tick. If there’s a high instance of disease caused by that type of tick near you, you can assume you’re at a higher risk.

However, with many tickborne diseases, the amount of time the tick was attached factors into your risk for getting sick. For example, if you remove a blacklegged deer tick within 24 hours, you reduce your chance of getting Lyme disease because it takes time for the bacteria to be transferred. The longer a tick is attached, the higher your risk for illness. You should always check yourself, your children and your pets after spending time outdoors in wooded areas and fields.

Being more vigilant about checking for ticks after spending time outdoors. Preventing tick bites is always the best way to reduce your risk for tickborne diseases.

  • Protect against tick bites by avoiding areas with high grass and leaf litter; walking in the center of trails; taking extra precautions in warmer weather; using tick repellents; wearing long pants, sleeves and socks outdoors and tucking all of your clothing in to keep ticks out. Light-colored clothes will also help you spot ticks that have hitched a ride easier.
  • Check for ticks before entering your home, which includes yourself, your children,  your pets and your gear. Clean clothing, such as outer layers, hats and jackets, should be tumbled on high heat in the dryer for 10 minutes to kill any ticks you may have missed. Dirty clothing should be washed in hot water. Showering as soon as possible is recommended to wash off any ticks you may have missed. You should do a full-body check again, following your shower. Ticks like to hide under arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist and especially in hair.
  • Remove ticks as soon as you can, using a method that is proven to work so that all of the tick’s mouthparts are removed.
    • Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to your skin’s surface as possible.
    • Pull the tick away from your skin with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk as this may cause the tick’s mouthparts to be left behind. If mouthparts break off and remain in your skin, try to remove them with clean tweezers. If you are unable to remove them easily, leave the area alone to let your skin heal.
    • Dispose of the tick by putting it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag or container and freezing it or lighting it on fire. Ticks have an extremely hard-to-crack outer shell, which makes them extremely hard to kill by crushing them.
    • Wash your hands and bite area with soap and water.
  • Watch for symptoms. Knowing what type of tick bit you will help you identify specific symptoms of the disease or diseases transmitted by that type of tick. However, if you’re unable to identify the tick, many tickborne diseases have similar symptoms that include fever and chills, aches and pains and a rash that varies in appearance from one tickborne disease to the next. It’s also important to note that symptoms can range from mild to severe and onset can occur days or weeks after you’ve been bitten by a tick. Early recognition of symptoms and earlier treatment of infection can decrease your risk for serious complications. You should seek medical care as soon as you start experiencing any of the symptoms listed above following a tick bite.

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