Learn how to prevent tick bites and tips to treat them in the Oklahoma summer
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Summer has finally arrived in Oklahoma. Many of us will be venturing outdoors to camp, hike, swim, and explore our beautiful state. Unfortunately, humans are not the only ones who will be out and about enjoying the Oklahoma summer. Tick activity tends to be highest during spring, summer, and fall. Tick bites may not only cause skin conditions such as itching, swelling, and redness but may also transmit bacterial and viral illnesses.
Ticks are tough insects due to their hard outer shell. What makes them tougher than the average insect is that their bodies are not divided into small segments like an ant or a grasshopper. They have four different life stages going from egg to larva, nymph, and finally adults. Once a tick bites, the incubation period takes between two to 14 days with an average of about seven days before people may develop symptoms. Some of the common symptoms include fever, headache, chills, malaise, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, and a potential rash.
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness in the United States, however over 90% of Lyme disease cases are reported in the New England, mid-Atlantic, and upper north-central states. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) is most often transmitted by the American dog tick in Oklahoma. Other ticks include the Rocky Mountain wood tick and the brown dog tick. The rash caused by RMSF will usually develop in the arms and legs after three to five days from initial symptoms. The rash may be contained to the extremities or migrate toward the trunk.
Ehrlichiosis is transmitted through the bite of the Lone Star tick. Symptoms are very similar to those of RMSF; however, people are less likely to develop a rash. Once infection is suspected, treatment should be started promptly with antibiotics in order to prevent complications or, even worse, death. It is estimated that about 2 to 3% of people who are infected with ehrlichiosis will die from the infection. Vulnerable populations include people with a weakened immune system, men, elderly populations, and those who are exposed to high risk areas such as tall grass, wooded areas, and areas with high rodent or deer populations.
Tularemia is a disease caused by a bacteremia that is mainly found in the Northern Hemisphere. It is normally found in rabbits, but can also be found in dogs and cats. Prairie dogs also serve as carriers for tularemia. The Lone Star and dog ticks are most commonly associated with transmission to humans. But humans can also become infected when handling wild game. Initial presentation is similar to the other tick-borne illnesses; however, a short improvement period may take place. It may later come back as one of six different syndromes based on how the infection was transmitted. The main symptoms to watch for are swollen and tender glands, skin ulcers, pneumonia, or a sore throat. In rare cases it may also include infection of the eye manifested by pain and difficulty looking at bright lights.
Do not panic if you find a tick, but do remove it as soon as possible. Avoid handling the tick with bare hands; instead use a pair of tweezers and grab as close to the tick’s head as possible. It is important to not squeeze the tick’s body while attempting to remove it. Make sure to slowly pull straight up in order to remove the tick. Monitor for symptoms and call your primary care provider if you start developing any of the symptoms previously mentioned. It is important to highlight that not every tick is infected and therefore only people with symptoms should be treated.
As the old adage by Benjamin Franklin goes, one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Avoiding the initial tick bite is the best way to prevent transmission of these tick-borne illnesses. When venturing into high-risk areas make sure to use tick repellant with DEET on skin and clothing. When applying DEET to your skin, ensure that it is at least 20% in strength; it should be applied after sunscreen. If you do choose to use a tick repellant with permethrin, make sure it is only on clothing. While out and about try to stick to trails instead of walking through tall grass and brush areas. Make sure to check for ticks at least once a day, preferably multiple times a day. Avoid sandals, short-sleeved shirts and shorts if walking into high-risk areas.