Beware of Tick Bites

Avoid tick fever this summer.
By Ed Dowie
July/August 1984
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Rocky Mountain spotted fever is the most dangerous and widespread strain of tick-spread disease.
PHOTO: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE


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Who Let the Dogs Out?

Cam describes a recent encounter with some aggressive dogs.

Ticks! You know the eight-legged, tough-shelled little bloodsuckers I'm talking about. With teeth so sharp you don't feel their bite, they secretly attach themselves to you and your animals and hang on as if they'll never let go. When you discover one and pull it off, you wind up extracting as much skin as tick, and you're stuck with a varmint that's all but impossible to destroy.

Ah, but did you know that, besides giving you nasty tick bites to remember them by, some species can also leave you with an unpleasant or even fatal infectious disease? The most prevalent strains of tick-spread disease are Colorado tick fever, relapsing fever, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF). Of the three, RMSF is not only the most dangerous but also the most widespread. Since the initial symptoms of all three are fairly similar, if you have been bitten by a tick and show any signs of tick fever you should seek a doctor's help immediately, on the chance that you might have RMSF. Still, to keep things straight, here's a brief description of each strain, including its characteristics and range.

Colorado tick fever is the most common strain of tick-related illness in the western half of the United States. Cases have been reported in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Washington, and Wyoming. Symptoms usually occur three to seven days after a tick bite and consist of high fever (up to 105°F), followed by headache, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and oversensitivity to light. After about five days, the fever and other symptoms will start to subside, only to return in about a week. However, permanent recovery from this strain of tick fever almost always occurs without complications. And once a person's had it, he or she tends to build up a resistance to further attacks.

Relapsing fever, like Colorado fever, occurs mostly in the West. Its symptoms, which appear about a week after a tick bite, include high fever (during which the patient may become delirious), headaches, nausea, vomiting, and joint and muscle pain. Some victims will develop a dark red rash all over their bodies; others will become jaundiced, indicating liver involvement. Symptoms usually subside within about ten days but, as the name suggests, recur for another bout after a week.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever occurs in virtually all states. With an incubation period averaging seven days, RMSF is characterized by high fever (104 to 107°F), severe headaches, spinal and muscle stiffness, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. After about the fifth day, tiny pink dots will appear around wrists and ankles, and eventually this rash will spread all over the body. If the fever remains high for seven to ten days and the symptoms are left untreated, the nervous system will become involved, and death can result. Even with treatment the disease can take several weeks or months to run its course.

Treatment for Tick Fever

At this time there is no vaccine specifically designed to fight tick fever, but several antibiotics have proven effective in treating it. So at the first signs of the illness, the infected person should be taken to a doctor. If you can't get an afflicted individual to a physician right away—say, if you're on a wilderness backpacking expedition—here are some things you can do to help in the meantime. 

  1. Keep the patient down and quiet. Rest is vital, because any movement can produce further complications (such as a ruptured spleen, which is a life-threatening emergency).
  2. Try to control the fever with aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol or other brands). If these important medications were somehow omitted from your first aid kit, then see to it that the patient gets plenty of fluids and a cool bath (a mountain stream may make a good tub if you're outdoors). Should you find yourself in sagebrush country, boil some of the herb's leaves to make an old-fashioned but effective fever-fighting tea.
  3. Remember, though, that these measures are strictly stopgap techniques. Your most important job is to evacuate the patient by ground or helicopter to the nearest medical facility as soon as possible. 

Prevention

All of this sounds downright scary, doesn't it? Still, tick fever is amazingly easy to prevent. If you know your enemy (the tick!) and how to guard against it, your chances of contracting the fever are virtually nil.

The insects generally live in mountainous or heavily wooded areas. During the spring and summer, they populate the limbs and leaves of bushes, where they wait for a warm-blooded host to walk by. If none does, they eventually drop to the ground for shade and moisture (where they can remain all through the winter) and for further opportunities to hitch a ride on an unsuspecting benefactor.

When you plan to travel in tick country, dress for the occasion. Wear garments that fit closely around the wrists and ankles . . . tuck in shirttails ... and make sure pants legs are enclosed in boots or high socks. Then—while in the woods or after a day of hiking—make regular checks of yourself and others in your party to make sure no eight-legged freeloaders have climbed aboard.

Finding a tick on your person is no cause for alarm. If the bug is still crawling around, simply brush it off. If it's already bitten in for lunch, take immediate and careful action to remove the intruder. The longer the tick remains embedded, the greater your chances of infection.

There are a lot of different ways to pull ticks off. Some claim that applying heat—say, a knife blade warmed by a match—to the insect will make it back out of its burrow. But in my experience heat usually causes the tick to burn or explode, leaving the tick's head (a part likely to cause infection) intact under the skin. Other people suggest that applying a solvent—such as alcohol or kerosene—will make the critter retreat. Most people agree on the effectiveness of one very direct method: Grasp the struggling scoundrel lengthwise with a pair of pointed tweezers, making sure the sharp end of the tool is right next to the skin, and—once you've got a good hold on the bloodsucker—apply pressure and gently pull it off. If the procedure is done correctly, you'll probably remove a small piece of the patient's skin along with the whole tick, but don't worry: Your main concern is to extricate the entire bug. After you destroy the tick (burn the rascal or toss the offender into a creek or whatever), wash out the wound with soap and water, dry it off, and dab antiseptic on it. And then don't neglect to thoroughly wash your own hands as well, because it's possible to contract tick fever through a cut or nick in your skin.

Tick fever can be a serious malady ... but, as you can see, it can also be prevented by taking a few simple precautions. So make this summer a more pleasant one by remembering one hard-and-fast outdoor rule: Beware of tick bites!


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