As the weather turns warmer and people begin to enjoy the great outdoors, picnics are a frequent occurrence. Without the proper precautions, however, picnickers – and other outdoor fans – may become the main course.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ticks will be out in record numbers this summer. While not usually dangerous, some tick bites can transmit disease if precautions aren’t taken, said Dr. Elizabeth Cooperstein, a family practitioner with Medical Associates of Southwest Virginia in Big Stone Gap.
“In the Southeast, especially, the most common disease carried by ticks is Rocky Mountain spotted fever,” Dr. Cooperstein said. “Even that is not terribly common, but this is where it is most common.”
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is characterized by fever, headache, rash and nausea or vomiting. It affects more than 500 people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The disease is potentially fatal, but it’s easily treated,” Dr. Cooperstein said. “And it is easily prevented by not getting bit in the first place.”
Ticks are usually found in wooded or grassy areas. They latch on to a host’s skin or clothes and eventually bite the host’s skin to feed on its blood.
“You can usually catch them just by checking yourself and your children when you come inside,” Dr. Cooperstein said. “You should also check your pets, especially if they have long hair. You should basically take the same precautions with your pets as you do with your family.”
Basic insect repellent is the easiest way to keep ticks at bay, provided the spray contains permethrin, which specifically targets ticks. Wearing long sleeves and pants will also keep ticks from reaching the skin, and wearing light-colored clothes will make ticks easier to spot.
If a person is bitten by a tick, it won’t become firmly attached – or be able to transmit a disease – for about 48 hours, Dr. Cooperstein said.
“And you can remove it yourself,” she said. “There’s no need to take a trip to the emergency room every time you spot a tick.”
Proper tick removal is a simple process, according to Dr. Anil Tumkur, an internal medicine physician with Medical Associates of Rogersville.
“Using tweezers, firmly grasp the tick near its mouth and pull it out,” Dr. Tumkur said, adding that pulling out a tick with one’s fingers may squeeze the tick and inject infectious material into the host. “Always wear gloves to avoid accidental contamination, and disinfect the area after the tick has been removed.”
Never try to burn a tick off or smother it with petroleum jelly or nail polish, as these methods don't work, he said.
Nationwide, the most common disease carried by ticks is Lyme disease, with about 14,000 reported cases in the United States annually. Symptoms include fatigue, chills and fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, swollen lymph nodes and a red, circular skin rash.
The vast majority of those cases occur in the Northeast. Anyone who travels to that region of the country should take the same precautions they take when working or playing in the outdoors here, Dr. Tumkur said.
“Preventing the tick bite in the first place is the most important thing anyone can do,” he said.