As warmer weather approaches and we find ourselves spending more time outside, now’s a good time to brush up on a not-so-uncommon health concern here in Arkansas: Ticks. The danger from these little pests is more than Lyme disease, which according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, was only diagnosed 16 times in Arkansas in 2020. There are several tick-borne illnesses here which pose a serious threat to public health. It’s important to note that the ticks themselves aren’t the issue, but rather it’s the bacteria they carry and transmit in their bites which causes illness.
One such disease is Ehrlichiosis (urr-lick-e-o-sis) which was discovered in the United States in 1986 at Fort Chaffee right here in Arkansas. Not surprisingly, the type of bacteria causing the disease was then given the name Erhlichia chafeensis, and Arkansas continues to have one of the highest rates of infection with that bacterium each year according to the CDC. Like most tick-borne illnesses, also known as tick fevers, the symptoms are fairly broad and can begin up to two weeks after a tick bite. These symptoms include fever, chills, headache, nausea, vomiting, or muscle aches. Importantly, fewer than one in three adults infected with Ehrlichiosis will develop a rash. Unlike the characteristic “bullseye” rash associated with Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis tends to have a more splotchy or dotted rash, if any at all.
To prevent tick-borne illnesses such as Ehrlichiosis, it is important to take precautions when spending time outdoors. The best way to prevent tick bites is to avoid areas where ticks are known to be present, such as tall grass, wooded areas, and areas with a lot of leaf litter. If you must be in these areas, wear protective clothing such as long pants and sleeves, and use insect repellent on exposed skin and clothing. Be sure to check your body and clothing for ticks after spending time outdoors, and promptly remove any ticks you find. It is also important to shower as soon as possible after being outdoors to wash off any ticks that may be crawling on your skin.
Now you’re probably wondering: how do I “correctly” remove a tick? While there are a million folk remedies out there of uncertain quality; the professionals at the CDC make the process clear:
- Use clean, fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you cannot remove the mouth easily with tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
Do not try to remove a tick with razors, matches / soldering irons / heated pieces of metal, or by painting it with nail polish. While some remedies try to get the tick to detach by covering it up, that actually increases your risk of developing illness by leaving the tick attached for longer than it would take to pluck it off with tweezers.
If you are bitten by a tick and develop symptoms such as fever, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, or rash, it is important to seek medical attention. While the symptoms are easily confused with other illnesses like the flu, there are some simple blood tests that your doctor can check in the office that can suggest whether a tick-borne illness is the culprit and help decide on further testing. Thankfully, while there are quite a few tick-borne illnesses in Arkansas, they all typically can be defeated by the same types of antibiotics. Best of all, the mortality rate from Ehrlichiosis is less than 1% with treatment, and unlike Lyme disease, it does not cause longstanding health problems.
With proper precautions and early diagnosis and treatment, you can protect yourself and your loved ones from the dangers of tick-borne illnesses. Have a great –and safe- summer!
Clark Shell, MD, is accepting patients at White River Health Internal Medicine. To schedule an appointment, call 870-262-1530.