The best way to protect you and your family from tick-borne disease is knowledge and prevention.
To remove a tick, use a thin-tipped tweezers – smothering or burning the tick is NOT recommended.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has reported a noticeable increase in the number of tick-borne diseases, almost doubling the number of cases since this time last year. While the reason for this is not clear, some of it may be explained by changes in the environment and a better recognition and reporting of tick-borne diseases. Ticks are a reality of outdoor life, and while there is no sure fire way to avoid being bitten, there are precautions to take to reduce your risk for a chance encounter.
While tick-borne illnesses differ based on the type of tick, a common pattern of symptoms occur weeks after tick removal that indicates medical attention is needed. Tick-borne illness may start with a characteristic rash called “erythema migrans” which begins at the bite site and spreads out in a bullseye-like fashion. The rash can grow to be 12 inches or more across, it may be warm to the touch, but is typically not tender or itchy. Other types of rashes may occur depending on the illness. Additional symptoms include fever, chills, joint and muscle pain, cough, headache, and diarrhea. A raised, itchy bump (like a mosquito bite) is NOT consistent with the rash seen from tick transmitted infection. See the table below for the most common ticks and their associated bacterial or viral illnesses.
Associated Bacterial/Viral Illness
American Dog Tick / Wood Tick
Tularemia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Lone Star Tick
Tularemia, Ehrlichiosis, STARI (southern tick associated rash illness), Heartland virus
Ticks are typically found on the upper part of the body which gives the impression that they hang out overhead and fall onto their victim by chance. In fact, ticks do not jump, fly or fall from foliage above. They find their host by “questing”. A questing tick waits in low areas of vegetation such as brush, stems of grass, and fallen leaves with their front legs extended waiting for a suitable host to cross their path. Once this happens, the tick will travel up the body in search of a place to attach where it takes its blood meal. The head, neck, underarms and groin are the most common areas of the body where ticks are found.
Ticks are active anytime the ground is not frozen, therefore preventative measures need to be taken for a large part of the year. Wearing light colored clothing makes ticks easier to find and remove before they become attached. Tucking or even taping pant legs into your socks will help prevent a tick bite (remember the tick is seeking open skin for their next meal).
The best preventative measure is the consistent use of an insect repellent while outdoors. DEET is the most common ingredient found in repellents. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is the same ingredient found in many mosquito repellents. Another repellent that may be used is an essential oil called Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus which has proven to provide similar or even better protection than DEET. There is also an insecticide called permethrin that kills ticks on contact. Permethrin based products should never be applied directly to the skin, they are intended to be applied to clothing. Read and follow the instructions carefully, after all this is an insecticide! Clothing needs to be sprayed 2-4 hours prior to use to allow for drying. Once dried, the insecticide binds to the fabric and it is intended to last through several washings. See our infographic for more information about the safe use of insect repellants.
PROPER TICK REMOVAL
A “tick check” needs to be done any time you have spent time outdoors this includes adults, children, and pets! Ticks should be removed using a thin-tipped tweezer, grasping the tick as close to the skin surface as possible. Pull straight upward with a steady pressure the goal is to remove the entire tick including its head and mouth. Do not jerk or twist the tick to aid in removal and do not grab or squeeze the belly of the of the tick. The area of skin where the tick was attached should be disinfected with soap and water, dabbed with rubbing alcohol, and a thin layer of a topical antibiotic ointment should be applied. Other methods for tick removal such as applying petroleum jelly to smother the tick or using heat and chemicals are not effective and not recommended. Once removed, the tick can be flushed down the toilet, or saved in a plastic bag or vial for identification purposes. DO NOT attempt to kill the tick with your fingers or crush it using your teeth. Wearing rubber gloves while handling the tick is preferred and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling the tick.
Nightly tick checks may be a hassle, but once you know the facts, it is worth the extra effort. A tick must be attached for 24 hours or greater to transmit the infectious agent that causes the tick-borne illness. The longer a tick is attached, the chance of disease increases. In fact after 4 days, when ticks are fully engorged, the transmission rate is close to 100%.
Take the time to mark on your calendar the day a tick was removed from yourself, a child, or a pet. Observe for the common symptoms associated with tick-borne illness (see above) over the next 2 weeks. If these symptoms develop, seek medical attention immediately. If medical attention is needed, let your provider know the date of the tick attachment and the symptoms you are currently experiencing. They will be impressed with your attention to detail! Bacterial infections caused by ticks can be treated with antibiotics, the sooner treatment is started the better the outcome for you.
If you have questions about tick bites, call the Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222. Specially trained nurses and pharmacists are available 24/7/365. The service is free and confidential.