Tick Bites – Identification, Symptoms & illnesses
How and Why Ticks Bite
Ticks bite humans and other animals because the parasites need to feed on the blood of a host in order to grow and, in the case of females, produce eggs. Unlike other biting pests, such as mosquitoes, ticks must remain attached to the host animal over the course of three days or longer to ensure ingestion of a full blood meal. As a result, ticks possess specialized mouthparts enabling the parasites to latch firmly onto other animals when biting.
Tick mouthparts consist of a pair of chelicerae positioned around a hypostome. Under a microscope, the chelicerae look like long rods with hooked teeth at the ends. Ticks use chelicerae to latch onto host animals by burying the teeth into flesh and embedding the structures in the skin.
While attached, ticks pierce the flesh of the host animal with the hypostome, which resembles a sword bordered by a row of jagged spikes. Once the hypostome breaks the skin, the spikes keep it secured in position and allow the tick to begin feeding. Victims of tick bites are often unaware, as the parasites inject painkilling agents called kininases in their saliva.
What Do Tick Bites Look Like?
After ticks feed and dislodge from host animals, a small red spot typically forms at the site of the bite within three days. Generally no larger than the size of a dime, the spot materializes due to an allergic reaction to the saliva of ticks.
If the spot is larger than a dime or continues to expand, the offending tick may have caused an infection or transmitted a disease requiring medical attention.
Dangers of Tick Bites
Because ticks feed on the blood of one to three different animals during their life, tick bites can easily spread potentially dangerous diseases. Ticks often bite infected host animals, acquire disease-causing bacteria while feeding, and transfer the pathogens to other host animals during subsequent feeding sessions.
First identified in Connecticut, Lyme Disease is the most common health problem spread by ticks in the region. In fact, four out of the six New England states rank among the top 12 states reporting cases of Lyme disease nationwide. If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause severe joint pain and neurological problems.
In addition to Lyme disease, ticks in the New England area can transmit other illnesses and conditions, including anaplasmosis, babeosis, ehrlichiosis, and tick paralysis. Tick bites pose health threats to both humans and pets.
Treatment of Tick Bites
If a tick is still attached and feeding, then it must be removed from the site of the bite.
- Removing a tick requires pulling the parasite upward with a pair of tweezers in a gentle yet steadily persistent manner.
- Upon removal of the tick, bite victims should apply rubbing alcohol or another disinfectant to the site in order to prevent infection.
- The sometimes-itchy bump or spot that forms as a result of tick bites should also be monitored for signs of disease.
Prevention of Tick Bites
When travelling outdoors, New England residents should take several precautionary measures to prevent tick bites, especially during the warmer months from late spring through early fall. As ticks generally hide in tall grass or brush and wait for passing host animals, hikers and other outdoorsmen should keep to the center of trails and avoid walking through overgrown vegetation whenever possible. Tucking pants into socks and wearing lighter-colored clothing can also help prevent tick bites and make it easier to detect the presence of the parasites.
Other effective prevention methods include wearing repellent with DEET concentrations of at least 20% and applying permethrin to clothing. Upon returning inside, shower promptly and toss clothes into the dryer for an hour under high heat to ensure elimination of any remaining ticks.
Physical Symptoms of Tick Bites
Some symptoms include:
- Inflamed patch of skin larger than a dime
- Slight pain
- Some bites resemble a bullseye pattern
Victims that are particularly allergic to tick bites may develop:
- Difficulty breathing
Tick bites are a significant health hazard as there is a possibility of contracting tick-borne pathogens. When feeding, a tick expels excess water by transferring saliva into the host, and any pathogens the arachnid carries can enter into a host's blood system. Typically, ticks must be attached to hosts for longer than 36 hours to transmit pathogens.
Symptoms of Tick-Borne Illnesses
Due to its severity and prevalence in local tick populations, Lyme disease is the most prevalent tick-borne illness to threaten residents of New England. The deer tick, the most common tick species in New England, is a major carrier of Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
Lyme Disease Symptoms
It is estimated that 50% of the New England deer tick population harbors the bacteria. Typically contracted in summer months, Lyme disease symptoms include:
- Muscle pains
- Rashes near bite sites
- Stiff neck
- Swollen glands
Symptoms may surface several weeks after being bitten. Most Lyme disease cases can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
Other Diseases & Symptoms
The Lone Star tick, also common to New England, was also thought to pass Lyme disease to hosts. However, researchers have disproven this notion, finding that the tick infects hosts with an ailment known as STARI, southern tick-associated rash illness.
Less severe than Lyme disease, STARI causes similar symptoms of fatigue, headache, fever, and muscle pain to Lyme disease. Tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are other ailments that residents of New England may contract from tick bites.