When Ticks Bite

Ticks are second only to mosquitoes as transmitters of human disease. There are more than 800 species worldwide, including the common hard ticks, soft ticks and a third family consisting of a single African species.

Ticks eat only blood, and they can transmit pathogens acquired from one host when feeding on the next host.  They spend 95 percent of their lives off of their hosts. Ticks can withstand long periods of starvation, with some studies showing that they can survive more than a year without a host.

Ticks require moisture, which is why they are generally found in humid, cool environments. They find their hosts by “questing,” or climbing onto vegetation and clinging, head down, to grass or branches. They wait for a host to pass and then they latch onto the host.

Only six of the 800-plus known tick species are commonly associated with human disease in Missouri, and most of these are hard ticks.

To prevent being a tick host, it is recommended to tuck pant legs into socks or taping them closed before going into tick-infested areas, and spraying tick repellent onto clothing and skin.

Check for infestation immediately after leaving a wooded area rather than waiting to feel a tick bite. Transmission of many diseases takes up to 24 hours of attachment and feeding, so prompt inspection is critical. Wash clothing immediately. While ticks can sometimes survive hot water, they can survive in a hot dryer for only an hour.

After removing a tick, treat the area with alcohol, disinfectant or topical antibiotics to reduce the risk of  secondary infection. Save the tick in a small plastic vial (for up to two weeks) in case there is a need to examine it later. Record the date of removal and the location on your body from which the tick was removed. Finally, watch for signs and symptoms of a tick-borne disease. General symptoms include headache, fever, muscle pain, joint pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

If you develop a rash or fever within several weeks of removing a tick, see your doctor. Be sure to tell the doctor about your recent tick bite, including when it occurred and where you most likely acquired the tick.

In most cases, if you have symptoms of a tick-borne disease and have noted the date of tick removal and brought the tick specimen with you, a doctor will start antibiotic treatments. Antibiotics are very effective at combating tick-borne illnesses. If antibiotics are administered when the symptoms first appear, the symptoms disappear and long-term or chronic effects are rare.

However, if you do not see a doctor and do not take antibiotics, the symptoms will eventually pass, but you are at risk of experiencing of long-term effects such as chronic headaches, fever, muscle or joint pain, nausea or diarrhea. These chronic symptoms do not respond to treatment.

Preventive antibiotic treatments have generally not been recommended in the U.S. because they are not necessary in most tick bite cases.

This article was taken from the MU Extension “Guide to Ticks and Tick-Borne Diseases”. This is available at our county extension centers or as a free download at extension.missouri.edu/p/ipm1032 

Source: Dr. Richard M. Houseman, MU Extension Entomologist

Submitted by: Joni Harper, Agronomy Specialist

Tips for successful tick removal. Figure by CDC.