If you spend any time outside, you’ve probably encountered ticks at some point —especially if you own a pet. (1) Ticks are everywhere in the United States. In fact, there are more than 800 species of ticks on the planet. While most ticks are harmless, some have the potential to transmit serious diseases caused by viruses, bacteria and parasites.
In this article, you’ll learn surprising truths about ticks and tick-borne infections. Plus, we’ll teach you the best ways to avoid ticks and what to do if one bites you.
What Are Ticks?
Contrary to popular belief, ticks are not insects. They’re parasitic arachnids related to spiders, scorpions and mites. In their lifetime, ticks will progress through four stages of development: egg, larva, nymph, and adult.
After the eggs hatch, ticks must have a blood meal at every stage to survive. Unfortunately, these tiny, 8-legged vampires feed on humans and all kinds of animals. And they have the potential to transmit serious and sometimes deadly diseases.
How Do Ticks Find You?
Thankfully, ticks don’t fly, jump, run, or hop. They crawl. But don’t let their lack of speed fool you. Ticks are super stealth and remarkably nimble. They camp out on grass, foliage and low-to-the-ground objects, waiting to latch onto an unsuspecting animal or human. It’s a strategy called “questing,” where they stretch out their clawed front legs and grab onto a passing host’s fur, feathers or skin.
Questing may sound like an unpromising stunt for these itty-bitty bugs, until you consider that ticks have receptors on their front legs that detect small vibrations and the breath of passing animals and people. Ticks literally have a leg up on their competition!
What Happens When Ticks Bite?
Once a tick climbs aboard its host, it searches for a safe spot to attach its mouthparts, which are covered with microscopic hooks and barbs. (2) From there, a tick can stay attached for several days, slowly gorging itself on your blood before dropping off on its own.
You may not even realize you’ve encountered a tick, because their bites are painless. Plus, ticks are notoriously hard to see. The nymph is the size of a poppy seed and the adult is the size of an apple seed. (3) They range in color from black to shades of brown or reddish-brown.
It’s especially difficult to recognize ticks when they feed, because their flat, oval bodies swell. At their largest swollen state, ticks can be about the size of a marble, and sometimes their color changes to greenish-blue.
While ticks can bite anywhere on the body, they especially like those soft, hidden places, including the backs of knees, armpits, back of the neck, and groin. One German study discovered ticks most frequently bite children on their heads and necks. (4)
Which Ticks Make You Sick?
Tick bites don’t always cause overt illness. They can be harmless if no symptoms occur. But several tick species can cause different infections that can lead to a chronic inflammatory response in the body. And more than one co-infection can be transmitted from the same tick bite. You can access maps on the CDC website that show the general regional distribution of these ticks. (5)
Types of Tick-Borne Infection
Several tick-borne infections range in severity and symptoms. Here’s a small sampling of different types:
- Alpha-Gal: Also known as “red meat allergy,” alpha-gal is a recently identified allergic reaction to one of the contents of tick saliva. (6) It most often begins with a bite from the Lone Star tick. In some people, this triggers an immune system reaction that later produces mild to severe allergic reactions to red meat, such as beef, pork or lamb, or other mammal products.
- Babesiosis: This rare disease is caused when a bite from a Blacklegged tick (deer tick) infects a person’s red blood cells with a tiny parasite called babesia. While most cases of babesiosis are undetected or mild, the infection can be severe and life-threatening for some people. (7)
- Lyme: The most common tick-borne illness in the United States, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted from the bite of Blacklegged (deer) ticks. (8) The disease gets its name from Lyme, Connecticut, where it was first identified in the U.S. in 1975.
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF): One of the deadliest tick-borne diseases, RMSF is spread by several tick species, including the American dog tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick and Brown dog tick. (9)
Signs of Tick-borne Infection
While most tick bites are benign, it’s important to pay attention to any unusual symptoms you experience.
Signs of a tick-borne infection may include (10):
- A lesion that lingers more than a few days
- A large bull’s eye-shaped skin lesion
- Fever and chills
- Neck stiffness
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Aches and pains, fatigue and muscle aches
- A rash that may occur from three to 30 days after being bitten by a tick
- Various types of skin rashes
- Skin ulcers where the tick bite occurred
Poisons injected by ticks may also cause a multi-symptom, multi-system illness called Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS). Some people with CIRS may also have mold toxicity.
Protecting Yourself: How to Avoid Tick-Borne Infection
If all this talk about ticks has you contemplating a life indoors, remember the health benefits of being outside far outweigh any risks.
In addition to being mindful of your surroundings and avoiding tick-infested areas, you can dramatically reduce your risks by wearing protective clothing.
You can make it harder for ticks to crawl underneath clothes by tucking pant legs into socks or boots and shirts into pants. It’s also smart to avoid sitting directly on the ground or near stone walls.
Repellents for Ticks
Bug repellants can provide protection, but how do you know which ones are safe and effective?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates repellants and maintains an online search tool to help you find products it reviews. (11) With this in mind, the Environmental Work Group (EWG) recommends using an EPA-registered repellent that contains one of the following active ingredients, which have low toxicity concerns when used correctly:
- DEET (at less than 30 percent)
- IR3535 (at 20 percent)
If you want a natural repellant, the EWG lists these two as effective options:
- Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus and its synthetic derivative PMD
Check For Ticks
After spending time outdoors, be sure to inspect your whole body for ticks. Also check your children and pets.(12) Taking a shower within two hours of coming home also helps.
What Should You Do If You Find a Tick?
If you find a tick attached to your skin, remain calm. There’s no need to panic. Remove the tick as soon as possible. (13)
Lyme disease expert Richard Ostfeld, PhD., recommends saving the tick in a sealed container in the freezer, so you can show it to your healthcare provider if you develop symptoms. (14)
Watch for signs that might indicate you need emergency help. (15)
Call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number if you develop:
- A severe headache
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart palpitations
Contact your doctor if you:
- Weren’t able to completely remove the tick
- Have a rash that gets bigger
- Develop flu-like symptoms
- Think the bite is infected
- Were bitten by a deer tick
How are Tick-borne Illnesses Treated?
Tick-borne infections are often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, because they mimic so many other types of illnesses. To truly recover, you want to work with a practitioner who will take a whole-system approach to your health and address the root cause of your illness.
This holistic approach is the hallmark of functional and integrative medicine. Providers seek to answer the question, “Why are you ill?” so you can receive personalized care based on your unique health history. And they partner with you to remove the triggers that are causing dysfunction and allow your body to “re-set” to a new baseline.
An important part of the functional medicine protocol will address gastro-intestinal (gut) balance, because that’s where over 70% of your immune system is located. They’ll also consider lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep and exercise to help you harmonize your health.
In addition, here are some unique treatments that may help people manage and recover from tick-borne infections:
Ozone Detox Chamber – This treatment combines the benefits of sweating and detox from sauna with ozone’s ability to kill bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungus and improve energy. It assists with mitochondrial function and oxygenation in the body.
PEMF – Pulsed Electromagnetic Field is a popular therapy for many chronic disorders, including Lyme disease. It uses frequencies of low level electromagnetic pulses to reach muscles, bones, tendons, and organs to stimulate the body’s natural repair mechanisms.
IV – Lyme disease is one of many conditions that respond well to the intravenous (IV) administration of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Vitamin C IV may be useful for tick-borne illness.
An Integrative Approach to Tick-borne Illness in Saint Louis
If you’re experiencing symptoms that you think could be related to a tick-borne infection, you’re not alone. We welcome the chance to help you discover the root cause of your symptoms and determine the next best steps. Contact us for an appointment to discover how you can regain your optimal health and wellness.
- “Pet ownership increases human risk of encountering ticks – NCBI – NIH.” 19 Jun. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7053298/. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “ScienceShot: How Ticks Get Under Your Skin | Science | AAAS.” 29 Oct. 2013, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2013/10/scienceshot-how-ticks-get-under-your-skin. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “CDC Shares Eye-Opening Photo of Ticks Hidden on Poppy Seed ….” 30 May. 2019, https://www.prevention.com/health/a27655728/cdc-ticks-poppy-seed-muffin-photo/. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “Where do ticks like to bite? | Zecken.de.” https://www.zecken.de/en/where-do-ticks-bite. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “Regions where ticks live | Ticks | CDC.” 2 Apr. 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/geographic_distribution.html. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “Alpha-gal syndrome – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic.” 19 Nov. 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alpha-gal-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20428608. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “Babesiosis – General Information – Frequently Asked Questions – CDC.” https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/babesiosis/gen_info/faqs.html. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “Lyme disease – Symptoms and causes ….” 24 Oct. 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lyme-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20374651. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) | CDC.” https://www.cdc.gov/rmsf/index.html. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “What You Need to Know About Getting a Tick Bite – Verywell Health.” https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-to-know-about-tick-bites-4587783. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “Find the Repellent that is Right for You | Repellents … – US EPA.” 19 Feb. 2021, https://www.epa.gov/insect-repellents/find-repellent-right-you. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “How to Check Your Pet for Ticks | Healthy Pets, Healthy People | CDC.” 18 Jun. 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/publications/check-pet-for-ticks.html. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “Tick Removal | Ticks | CDC.” 6 Sep. 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/removing_a_tick.html. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- “What You Need to Know About Getting a Tick Bite – Verywell Health.” https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-to-know-about-tick-bites-4587783. Accessed 21 Apr. 2021.
- “Tick bites: First aid – Mayo Clinic.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-tick-bites/basics/art-20056671. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.