Spring appears to finally be here, and already I have encountered some tick bite concerns at the clinic, so I thought I would provide a summary of what I think you should know about tick bites and Lyme’s Disease.
Living near, and working and recreating in and around the forest and woodlands puts us at a much higher likelihood of crossing paths with the mighty, little, but highly bothersome tick. Typically, spring through early summer are the most active period for ticks and tick bites, but be aware of ticks during all seasons. Ticks are present even during cooler weather, but just not as fast moving. Preventing bites is step #1 to ensuring you don’t get Lyme’s. Consider suggestions of wearing long sleeves and long pants, along with hats when in the woodland areas, and try to avoid the brushy areas along frequented game trails. After your work or adventure consider a change of clothes and perform a head-to-toe skin check to look for unwanted guests. If you find a tick embedded in your skin, do not panic, but act swiftly to get it removed.
Spring/early summer ticks typically encompass more abundance of smaller, nymph stage ticks, that can run small, around 1mm size, similar to a poppyseed, making them more difficult to spot, and also more likely to bite and go unnoticed for a more extended period of time. Research by the University of Rhode Island has shown an estimated 20% of nymph stage deer ticks are infected with Borrelia Burgdorferi, the bacterial spirochete which causes Lyme’s. Another source estimated that up to 50% of female deer ticks (Ixodes ticks) can harbor Lyme’s. That being said, most tick bites are not harmful, even if a bite by a deer tick, provided it is identified and removed efficiently and effectively, particularly <24 hours after the bite occurred. Animal studies have shown that the spirochete lives in the gut of the tick, and during the blood engorgement phase after the bite, the spirochete migrates up to the salivary glands of the tick where it can potentially be transmitted to the host/human as the tick expels its saliva into the bite wound. Studies have shown that the salivary infestation of the spirochete is a time dependent event, with nearly no risk of transmission of Lyme’s spirochete in the first 24-48 hours after the tick has bitten, and progressive risk particularly after 72 hours from tick attachment.
Ticks latch on securely once they bite, utilizing a straw like tube and secreting a cement-like saliva into the bite wound. Your goal once you identify the embedded tick is to appropriately and effectively get it unattached in an expeditious manner, understanding that more time attached increases risk. Multiple home remedies and methods or approaches to removal have been tried and publicized, but research has shown that the best two options for removal are a small pair of tweezers or forceps, or gloved/protected fingers. Tweezer or finger removal methods have shown the best results of being able to remove the tick fully intact without leaving the mouth parts in the skin. Do not smother the tick with petroleum jelly, nail polish, gas or rubbing alcohol, as some suggest on the internet, as this can increase your risk for Lyme’s infection via increased salivary expulsion by the tick. Simply grasp the tick perpendicular to the body with tweezers, or with fingers, as close to the embedded head as possible, and using a steady upward pressure, gently but firmly pull the tick back out of his hole. Avoid jerking and twisting motions, and do your best to keep the insect fully intact, by avoiding excessive squeeze, crush or puncture of the tick body during the extraction process. Disinfect and wash the skin area of the bite immediately after removal. If small sections of mouthparts remain in the skin after removal, it is recommended to leave them alone, as they typically expel spontaneously. Place the removed tick in a ziplock bag or small jar, or take a close-up photo of the tick for identification, as the deer tick (Ixodes) most classically harbors the risk for the Lyme spirochete.
Ixodes (deer) ticks, which potentially can harbor Lyme spirochetes, have a characteristic appearance, with the adult female being orangish-red color, with a dark brown oval shaped “scutum” structure covering the upper back portion of the body. Males have a dark brown uniform “scutum” covering their whole back side. Unengorged adult ticks typically range ~3mm size, whereas the nymph stage is classically much smaller, said to be around the size of a poppyseed. In addition to Lyme’s, deer ticks can also transmit human granulocytic anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Refer to the great close-up images of the deer tick at this site by the University of Rhode Island, for identification: Deer Tick Identification
After a tick bite, cleanse and observe the area of the bite for classic rash development in the ensuing days to weeks. The saliva of the tick has been known to cause a temporary localized red rash at the bite site after removal, which sometimes gets confused with Lyme’s, with the key factor being temporary or short duration or presence. The classic Lyme disease rash is known as Erythema Migrans, which presents as “Bullseye” shaped red rash rings on the skin. Picture Erythema Migrans Even if you have been bitten by a deer tick that was infected with Lyme’s, it does not mean you will get the disease or get sick. After bites, observe for symptoms of fever, muscle aches, new rashes, joint pain, headaches, vomiting, or other flu-like symptoms, or any signs of localized skin infection at the bite site. Seek medical attention if these symptoms develop. Cold compresses, Ice, anti-inflammatory pain medication, and anti-histamines can be considered if desired use after a bite, as possible home treatment, while monitoring for concerning signs or symptoms. Risk factors that can come into play for Lyme’s include: confirmed Ixodes (deer tick) particularly female, prolonged embedded tick >48-72h, improper removal, nymph stage, and engorged tick (enlarged globular tick size, with a typical adult being up to 3mm size).
Untreated Lyme’s can lead to chronic conditions, including possible cardiac arrhythmias or injury, neurological sequela including motor or sensory damage, paralysis, weakness, tremor or seizures, and joint arthritis. Therefore, prevention of tick bites, and close self monitor and observation of symptoms and bite areas after the encounter are prudent practices. If you have been bitten by a deer tick, don’t panic, as it will not help the situation, but rather just make you feel worse. Follow the steps listed above, and then closely observe for future symptoms and new skin rashes, and if concerning signs develop, seek medical evaluation, and your provider should be able to make a wise decision about the next step of treatment, should it be indicated.
Don’t miss out on the beautiful natural surroundings that we live in here in the Trout Lake valley. Don’t let the pesky little tick prevent your future adventures. Hike on!!!
Let me know if you have questions.