Ticks may be the stuff of your nightmares, but how much do you know about them? Most of us know that ticks are parasites; they latch onto unsuspecting animals and feed on their blood until they are full. Contrary to common belief, ticks are actually arachnids instead of insects, meaning that they have 8 legs and two distinct body parts. Ticks go through three stages of their life cycle- larva, nymph, and adult- and usually require three separate hosts to get them through their life cycle. Most ticks are hardy creatures, going months to years without food and enduring frosts. Ticks find their way onto people by crawling up from the ground-- they don’t fall out of trees and they can’t jump.
Ticks of Winnebago County
There are currently four types of ticks that will bite people in Winnebago County. Read on to learn about each tick, the diseases they carry, and how to ID them! These ticks are in order from most common to least common in this region. More resources are available here.
American Dog Ticks are the most common in this area and can be found in grassy fields and scrubland. They will feed on a variety of hosts, ranging from mice to deer, but are frequently found on dogs. All life stages of American Dog Ticks can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to humans in addition to Tularemia. These tough creatures can survive two years without a meal at any life stage. Adult American Dog Ticks are most active April to early August, though larvae overwinter. Females have white splotching on their dorsal shield and have red-brown abdomens. Males have white splotches across their entire body.
Deer Ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, are common in deciduous forests. They get their name from their host species, the white-tailed deer. While most prevalent in the summer, these ticks are active even after several frosts. They are also among the first invertebrates to become active in the spring. Deer ticks are known to carry Lyme Disease- about 50% of them are infected- but they can carry multiple diseases at a time including Babesiosis and Anaplasmosis. Adult females have black dorsal shields (a spot near their head) and auburn abdomens. Their bodies are usually oval in shape, though engorged deer ticks look like little gray balloons.
Unfortunately, Lone Star Ticks are on the rise in this area, which is possibly the result of our shifting climate. Lone Star Ticks are common in densely wooded areas with animal resting places. Adults can carry both Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Human Ehrlichiosis, and 'Stari' borreliosis. Females can be recognized by a distinct white spot in the center of their body, hence their name “Lone Star”. Males have black marbling on their brown body and white streaks around the outside of their abdomen. Adults are active April to late August. Lone Star Ticks also carry a substance called alpha-gal, which if transferred to its host, can make them experience allergic reactions toward red meat (Tick Bites).
Brown Dog Ticks can be found in Winnebago County, but are the least common. All life stages of this tick can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to dogs, but rarely to humans. Females have slender, oval-shaped bodies with long yellow legs. Males have deep brown bodies with black marbling and are shaped like a narrow triangle.It can be found worldwide and in a wide variety of habitats, though they prefer warm conditions. Adults can live up to 18 months without food, and they can complete their entire life cycle indoors.
Diseases Carried by Ticks
Lucky for us, most ticks don’t carry diseases, and even if they do, most ticks do not transmit disease transfers to the host in less than 24 hours, but it can happen. Not so lucky for us, many of the diseases carried by ticks can be serious and even fatal. It’s important to know what diseases are carried by ticks in our area, how to recognize their symptoms, and the treatment options available. This section highlights common diseases carried by ticks in this area, but a more comprehensive list can be found here.
Lyme Disease is caused by a bacteria carried by Deer Ticks. If caught early on, patients can take antibiotics and experience little to no consequences. However, early prevention is important as this disease can be fatal if gone untreated. One of the telltale signs of Lyme Disease is a bullseye rash that develops around the infection site. However, 20-30% of those with Lyme Disease will not develop the rash, so it is not a surefire diagnosis. Other symptoms include fever, chills, headache, joint and muscle pain, and general fatigue. As the disease progresses, those infected may experience multiple rashes, partial facial paralysis, dizziness and heart palpitations, among other symptoms. If you suspect that you have been bitten by a deer tick, it is important that you visit your doctor. Blood tests can help determine if you have contracted the disease, but they they are not 100% accurate. IGenex Labs has one of the more reliable tests, but you may have to order a testing kit. ILADS recommends that prophylaxis (preventive treatment) of 20 days of doxycycline (provided there are no contraindications) to all who have had a blacklegged tick bite. An appropriate course of antibiotics has been shown to prevent the onset of infection. While treatment and awareness is critical, only 1-3% of those bitten by an infected Deer Tick will contract the disease. You can learn more about Lyme Disease here.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a rare but serious disease transmitted by the American Dog Tick. It’s classic symptoms include a fever and spotted rash, though 10-15% of patients with RMSF will not develop a rash. Other early symptoms include nausea, headache, and muscle pain. Long-term consequences of the disease are very serious, including partial paralysis, loss of hearing, amputation, and even death. If caught in its early stages, RMSF can be treated with antibiotics and patients will experience relief from their symptoms within 1-3 days. Learn more about RMSF here.
Tulameria is an incredibly rare disease transmitted by American Dog Ticks. It can affect humans, dogs, cats, and other animals, with cats being the most frequently affected. Signs and symptoms vary, but generally include lesions near the bite site, swollen lymph nodes, fever, and chills. Since the invention of antibiotics, the fatality rate of this disease has dropped from 60% to 4% (Mandell). Early recognition and antibiotics are critical for the treatment of this disease. You can learn more about Tulameria here.
Babesiosis is the result of parasites carried by Deer Ticks. Roughly 20% of individuals with Babesiosis also had Lyme Disease. Most people with Babesiosis experience little to no symptoms, though symptoms can include headaches, fever, and anemia (low red blood cell counts). If individuals experience no symptoms, treatment is not required. Patients with ongoing, returning, or severe symptoms can be treated with a combination of microbial medications. Learn more about Babesiosis here.
Anaplasmosis is a disease caused by a bacteria transmitted by Deer Ticks. While anyone can contract Anaplasmosis, symptoms are more severe in older individuals with weakened immune systems. Symptoms include headaches, fevers, chills, and general fatigue. It is treated with antibiotics and early recognition is critical. Learn more about Anaplasmosis here.
While the simplest method of tick prevention is to stay indoors, there are several things you can do to enjoy the beauty of the great outdoors while preventing tick infections. Ticks are most frequently picked up when hiking through tall grasses or woods, so staying on mowed trails or paved paths can go a long way in avoiding exposure to ticks.
If you are planning on going off trail, which I hope you do, it is best to wear long pants and shirts. Tucking your clothes in eliminates a spot where ticks could get under your clothes and onto your skin. Therefore, tuck in as much as you can: your pants into your socks, your shirt into your pants, your ponytail up into your hat. Women can also put their hair in tight braids to prevent ticks getting into their hair and unto their scalp.
Insect repellents have also been found to be effective in thwarting off ticks. There are dozens of home-made recipes out there, but the scientific consensus supports DEET as the most effective tick repellent. A bug spray with 20% or more DEET will certainly help to keep ticks at bay. If you do apply bug spray, though, there are some steps you can take to prevent polluting the environment. Spray in a parking lot to avoid overspraying unto native plants and wash your hands after applying to prevent spreading it unto the things you touch. You can also treat your clothes with Permethrin to ward off ticks.
What to do if You Have a Tick on You
The first step is to remain calm, as difficult as that can be. If you find a tick just crawling on you, pick it off and move it outdoors or out of your way. If you find a tick that has embedded, follow the following steps.
Use Tweezers to pull it out. Pinch the tick at the base of its mouth and slowly pull it straight up. Squeezing the body may spew its guts contents out onto you, which can increase rates of infection. Narrow-tipped tweezers are usually best, and home remedies like suffocating or burning ticks will only aggravate them.
Put the tick in a baggie. In this area, it is important to ID the tick to determine if you were exposed to any diseases. Refer to this handy chart to do so. You can keep the tick in a freezer just in case you develop symptoms and want to get it tested. When you are confident that you have not developed any disease symptoms, toss it out or flush it down the toilet.
Wash the bite site with soap and water, and use isopropyl alcohol if available.
Monitor your health. If you start to develop symptoms of any diseases, it’s worth it to go to your doctor to get it checked. Early detection makes a huge difference in treating most diseases from tick bites, so you could be doing yourself a huge favor. Some diseases take a while to develop, so keep that in mind as you continue to monitor your health. Remember that not everyone develops the bulls-eye rash with Lyme.
Send in your tick to Tick Report to have it analyzed. Tick Report costs $50 but gives you peace of mind. Your results are securely delivered via email within 3 business days after your tick arrives at our lab.