Ticks and Tick-Borne Diseases

— Written By and last updated by

Did you hear that the Center for Disease Control recently confirmed that the death of a six-year old Buncombe county child was due to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF)? When most people think of ticks and tick-borne diseases, they focus their attention on Lyme Disease which is more prevalent in the northern states but certainly is on the rise in North Carolina and can have severely debilitating effects if it is not diagnosed promptly. However, this recent incident is a sad reminder about the prevalence of RMSF in North Carolina. In 2012, we had 584 cases of the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever with the peak occurring in June and July. The American dog tick is the primary vector (transmitter) of RMSF. The blacklegged tick is the primary vector of Lyme Disease in North Carolina.

Many people may be inclined to try outdoor chemical treatments and that’s certainly their option when the weather cooperates. They need to bear in mind that tick management requires a thorough, NOT excessive, application of the chemical. Unlike with mosquitoes where the goal is to treat foliage where the mosquitoes are resting, ticks are often down on the soil itself and so the chemical application needs to cover the soil. With that in mind, your best options are going to be a garden hose sprayer attachment or a granular insecticide. Both need to be done when the grass is not excessively wet, the granules can get caught in the wet grass and not reach the soil surface where they’re needed to be effective. Please keep in mind, you may “control” the tick population in the treated areas of your yard, but this does nothing to address the ticks in the weedy overgrown areas that remain untreated and may be home to rabbits, feral cats, etc. that serve as host and transportation for ticks.

This is a good time to reiterate the good practices for protecting yourself from ticks and all of the tick-related diseases.

– Go take a hike – but if you do, stick to the open paths. If you feel the need to be adventuresome and head into the surrounding brush, you may subsequently feel some adventuresome ticks on you as well.

– Whether you’re outdoors for work or recreation, keeping ticks off of you is important. One way is to wear light-colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks making the ascent up your leg and preferably wear long pants and tuck the pant legs into your socks. The answer to the next question is simple, “Yes… people seeing you in your yard or on a hiking trail will think you look like a dork”, but they may think that even if you don’t have your pants legs tucked into your socks. Whether you wear shorts or long pants, apply a repellent to your socks and pants or in the case of shorts, only to exposed parts of your skin.

–       Check yourself (and children) over carefully after working or playing outdoors.

– If you find a tick that’s feeding on you, remove it carefully with a pair of tweezers. If possible, keep the tick for identification by placing it in a small jar filled with rubbing alcohol.

– Just because you find a tick on you, doesn’t mean it’s been feeding, particularly if it’s still wandering around. Ticks attach their heads to your skin with a type of “cement” and then the feast begins.

–  Also, just because the tick is identified as American dog tick or the blacklegged tick does not mean that is actually infected with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Lyme Disease. People may rush to their doctor to get a blood test done. However, at this early stage a blood test isn’t helpful because the tests rely on detecting antibodies that develop in response to the pathogen and it can take several weeks for the antibody levels to reach detectable numbers. Also, some healthy people who have been exposed to RMSF may already have detectable levels. For that reason, blood tests are usually done twice a few weeks apart to look for a significant rise in antibody levels, indicating a likely infection rather than just a previous exposure.

As a reminder, 20% or more of the people infected with the Lyme Disease pathogen do not develop the classic “bull’s eye” rash that they just saw after doing a Google search. The CDC also reports that 10% of people infected with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever do not develop the characteristic rash that we read about, and of course, rashes on children or adults can have many other non-disease causes. The best approach is to circle the date of the “tick encounter” on the calendar and if you develop flu-like symptoms, severe headaches or joint pain within the next 3-14 days, contact your physician immediately and mention the tick incident. Most doctors will take the cautious route and prescribe antibiotics which when taken early on usually take care of the problem.

North Carolina Cooperative Extension has additional information about ticks and tick-borne diseases available on our website:  https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/ent/notes/Urban/ticks.htm#tick or for more information you may contact Keith Walters at the Hoke County Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension, located at 116 West Prospect Avenue, or by phone at (910) 875-3461 or at keith_walters@ncsu.edu by email.