Outdoor Safety for Families: The Tiny and Terrible Tick
We just got back from our first camping trip of the season, and ran into a notorious and ubiquitous outdoor pest—the tick. We managed to get up-close-and-personal with one of the nasty little critters when we found one hanging out on my son's shoulder when we were getting him ready for bed. Fortunately, it hadn't bitten him yet, and we caught and disposed of the tick quickly and easily. It did reinforce for us the need to be vigilant in looking for ticks after most outdoor activities.
Often as small as a sesame seed, these nasty little parasites can be found all over California—you've no doubt seen the tick warning signs at many trailheads throughout Marin and the Bay Area. While in times past they were regarded as more of a nuisance than anything else, in the last 20 years or so they’ve become vectors for serious health problems, including the infamous Lyme disease. Of course, this article should not be a substitute for genuine medical advice, so if you suspect a real health problem, talk to your pediatrician.
Ticks are small parasitic arachnids that feed on the blood of other animals, which of course includes us. The tick will attach itself to the host, feed until engorged with blood (yuck), and then drop off. Ticks do not jump, fly, or hop, but attach themselves only by direct contact. They are generally present in tall grass and brush, so the easiest way to avoid them is to stay on the trail and out of grassy areas, wear long pants, light-colored clothing (for easy tick spotting), and to tuck trouser legs into socks. An insect repellent containing DEET is also an effective deterrent for ticks.
To remove ticks, it’s best to use a pair of tweezers to grasp the tick as close to its head as possible, and then pull the critter out. The head will be buried under the skin, so grasp the tick’s body as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight out. Try not to crush the tick’s body, as that can introduce more nasty stuff into the victim’s body.
Do not twist the tick’s body; that’s just an urban legend and can make matters worse by breaking the tick’s head off while still attached under the skin. Swab the affected area with alcohol and, if possible, put the tick into some alcohol to kill it and save it for identification. If you're not comfortable with removing the tick yourself and can get to the doctor immediately, then by all means do so. Even if you pull the tick out, it’s probably best to check with your child’s pediatrician, too.
The tick bite itself, while kind of gross to think about, can often go unnoticed and in fact is not all that harmful. The tick’s saliva, however, can cause “tick paralysis” or carry a number of other different diseases, none of which you and your children want to get. Keep in mind, however, that the chance of someone coming down with one of these ailments is extremely low. There are a number of different tick species in California, not all of which carry diseases.
- Tick paralysis is caused by a neurotoxin in the tick’s saliva, and results in a muscle weakness that spreads through the body. In rare instances it can result in fatalities due to respiratory failure.
- Lyme disease is caused by bacteria in the tick’s saliva, and is probably the most notorious tick-borne diseases. On the West Coast, Lyme disease is spread primarily by the Western Black Legged Tick (Ixodes pacificus). Lyme disease was pretty much unknown in California two decades ago, but has progressed across the continent from the East Coast, where it was first identified in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1975. Lyme disease starts as a type of skin rash, often with a bullseye pattern. At this stage, if discovered, it can be successfully remedied with antibiotics, but if left untreated can lead to all sorts of unpleasant disabling symptoms, including headache, loss of muscle tone, joint pain, weakness, fatigue, and even cardiac problems.
- The other major tick-borne disease is Rocky Mountain Spotted fever. Somewhat rarer in the state than Lyme disease, it’s also pretty miserable, causing fever, joint pain, headaches, nausea, and a rash. The disease can be fatal if left untreated, and long-term effects can include partial paralysis and gangrene.
- California tick indentification from UC Davis
- Tick information from the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District
- Tick removal step-by-step from KidsHealth.org
- Learn about Lyme disease from the Center for Disease Control
Image: Adult deer tick (Ixodes scapulari). Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA.
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