Tick-borne pathogens infect thousands of people each year, causing diseases that range in severity from a mild inconvenience to a serious, life-threatening condition. The most common tick borne pathogen is Lyme disease, which affects an estimated 300,000 people per year. Disease-carrying ticks are found across the US, but Lyme disease is most prevalent in the Northeast and Midwest. Ticks can turn a pleasant walk in nature to a serious threat to one’s health–knowing how to avoid tick bites and spot ticks is essential for anyone who spends even a small amount of time in nature.
Ticks and Disease in Nature
Ticks are blood-sucking parasites that live in varied climates and habitats, mostly woodland areas with mammals. Ticks spread disease by picking up pathogens from woodland creatures, like deer, rodents, or birds, and biting humans after being contaminated. Different species of ticks can carry different diseases based on the habitat they live in, so the relative danger posed by ticks varies significantly by region. For a map which shows the distribution of tick species and their corresponding diseases, go to the CDC’s geographic distribution of ticks to see which ticks are a problem in your home region.
Lyme disease is the most prevalent tick-borne disease, with over 42,000 cases reported to the CDC in 2017. While the true number of infected people is estimated to be much higher, not everyone develops a serious enough case of Lyme disease to require treatment. The bacteria which causes the disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, is endemic in deer populations across the Northeast and Midwest, but also found in some areas of the West Coast. After being bitten by a tick, a “bull’s-eye” rash might develop in the following days. Symptoms of Lyme disease occur on average 7 days after infection, but the incubation time can vary significantly. The bacteria causes tissue inflammation in the brain and other parts of the body, resulting in symptoms that include headaches, nerve pain, inflammation, joint swelling, dizziness, and memory problems. Other serious effects include facial palsy, arthritis, and possibly heart complications. Treatment involves long-term antibiotics and can be a slow process.
Other Tick-Borne Pathogens
Lyme disease isn’t the only way ticks can make people sick. Recently, the Powassan virus made news, as 7 people in Maine were infected by tick bites. The disease anaplasmosis is the second-most prevalent tick-borne disease in the US, infecting at least 7,700 people in 2017. Many tick-borne diseases have similar symptoms including dizziness, nausea, headaches, and fever. If you think you have been bitten by a tick and Lyme disease is not the cause of your symptoms, consider that it could be any number of other tick-borne diseases.
Protecting Yourself From Tick Bites
The best way to protect yourself from tick-borne diseases is to avoid getting bit by ticks in the first place. Here are some tips for preventing tick bites from the CDC:
If bitten by a tick:
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