The lone star tick and the American dog tick (Figure 1) are common problem species found in Kentucky and much of the eastern U.S. They are a significant threat to everyone who works, plays, hunts, hikes, or camps in or around overgrown or undisturbed areas. Reactions to bites vary from person to person based on the body’s response to the salivary mix injected by ticks as they feed. The special misery of the lone star tick bite can linger for 7 to 10 days, and there is the potential for secondary infection if the wound is contaminated during scratching.
Lone star and American dog ticks are three-host ticks, which means that during their development, they obtain blood meals from three different hosts. Both ticks can develop on blood meals from several animal species. Consequently, they can pick up a rickettsia, bacteria, or viruses from an infected animal and transfer them to another species during feeding. Erlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are the most common tick-borne diseases in Kentucky; fortunately, the percentage of ticks infected with these diseases is very low. More information on ticks and disease in Kentucky is available in Ticks and Diseases in Kentucky (ENTFact-618).
Lone Star Tick & Erlichiosis
The lone star tick is the main vector of erlichiosis. The pathogen is a bacterium that infects the white blood cells of various mammals, including mice, cattle, dogs, deer, horses, sheep, goats, and humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), symptoms (fever, headache, chills, muscle pain) usually develop 1 to 2 weeks after being bitten by an infected tick. The tick bite is usually painless, and about half of the people who develop ehrlichiosis may not even remember being bitten by a tick.
American Dog Tick & Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
The American dog tick is a potential vector of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. According to the CDC, typical symptoms include fever, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting, and muscle pain. A rash may also develop but is often absent in the first few days. It never develops in some patients.
American Dog Tick & Red Meat Allergy
In addition, red meat allergy may appear as a skin rash or anaphylactic reaction that occurs 3 to 6 hours after eating beef, pork, or lamb. The reaction can occur in people with a history of strong reactions to tick bites (redness and itching at bite sites that last for weeks) or many bites from a single incidence. These people produce antibodies to proteins in the saliva of feeding lone star ticks. The common sugar (alpha-gal) that causes the reaction is not present in chicken, turkey, or fish. This antibody has been found in up to 20% of people tested who live where the lone star tick is common.
Avoiding Tick Bites
The best strategy to reduce the potential of contracting tick-borne diseases is to avoid tick bites. Here are some tips:
- Avoid walking through uncut fields, brush, and other areas likely to harbor ticks. Walk in the center of mowed trails to avoid brushing up against vegetation.
- Use a repellent that contains 20% to 30% DEET on exposed skin. Always follow product instructions.
- Use products that contain permethrin to treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants (especially the cuffs), socks, and tents.
- Tuck long pants into your socks and boots. Wearing light-colored pants makes ticks easier to see.
- In areas where there are ticks, check yourself, children, and other family members for ticks every 2 to 3 hours, as well as upon returning home from hikes and outdoor activities. Examine behind ears, hair, neck, legs, and around the waist.
- If you let pets outdoors, check them often for ticks. Ticks can “hitch a ride” on pets, but fall off in your home before they feed. Tick collars, sprays, shampoos, or monthly “top spot” medications help protect against ticks.
Removing an Attached Tick
In many cases, infected ticks must be attached and feeding for several hours before a pathogen is passed, so prompt removal is very important. Identification of ticks is available through local Cooperative Extension Service offices. You can store removed ticks in a sealed plastic bag with the date and location noted until they can be taken for identification.
Step 1: A feeding tick holds itself in place by barbed mouthparts and a type of glue. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible. The goal is to remove the entire tick, including its head and mouth.
Step 2: Pull up with a steady, gentle, even pressure. Do not twist or jerk the tick during removal.
Step 3: Afterwards, wash the bite area and your hands thoroughly with rubbing alcohol, an iodine soap, or soap and water. Apply an antiseptic to the bite site.
Testing Ticks for Disease
Anyone with concerns about exposure to ticks and possible disease transmission should consult their physician to determine the best course of action. Most tick-borne diseases can be averted by early intervention with an antibiotic. Also, several laboratories will test ticks for selected diseases. Contact information is available at the TickEncounter Resource Center.
Here are some points to consider:
- Testing ticks for disease is not a substitute for diagnosis by a physician. However, the results may be useful in deciding on the value of treatment in the absence of disease symptoms.
- A positive test result for ticks does not mean that disease transmission occurred. An infected tick may not have fed long enough to transfer the pathogen.
- Be sure that you understand the testing capabilities, costs, and proper shipping procedures for samples.
By Lee Townsend, Extension Entomologist