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Tick Facts: Dangers at the height of tick season

A tick like this one, seen at 10x magnification, can spread a number of dangerous pathogens during the warm-weather months. (Photo by Cornel Constantin) A tick like this one, seen at 10x magnification, can spread a number of dangerous pathogens during the warm-weather months. (Photo by Cornel Constantin)

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From April to September, tick activity spikes throughout the United States. With high tick activity comes the importance of increasing awareness of common tick-borne illnesses and how to prevent them.

According to Army Maj. Elizabeth Wanja, of the Uniformed Services University for Health Sciences, outdoor activities during peak tick season raise the chances of transmitting pathogens from living organisms that can carry diseases. These organisms include mosquitos, fleas and, you guessed it, ticks.

“Outdoor activities like farming, camping, and military training exercises in grasslands or edges of the forest increase chances of these pathogens’ transmission,” Wanja said.

Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 77 percent of all insect-borne diseases are carried by ticks. Lyme disease, transmitted through bites from deer ticks, remains the most common of these diseases. However, Lyme is not the only disease to be aware of. Here are five other tick-borne pathogens to be aware of:

Ehrlichiosis, which commonly occurs in the Southeast, South Central, and Midwest U.S., is transmitted to humans primarily by a bite of an infected lone star tick, which is native to this region. Symptoms include fever, chills, headache, muscles aches, and the occasional upset stomach. Ehrlichiosis can be treated in adults and children with the antibiotic Doxycycline.

Anaplasmosis occurs in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, upper Midwest and West Coast of the U.S. and is transmitted through a bite of the blacklegged tick and the western blacklegged tick. Anaplasmosis has the same symptoms and treatment as ehrlichiosis – the main difference being the tick that carries the disease.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever is caused by infection from a bacterial organism. It is transmitted by a bite of an infected American dog tick, brown dog tick, and the Rocky Mountain wood tick. This is commonly reported in the Southeast U.S. This infection causes high fever, headache, and rash, and can be deadly if not treated with Doxycycline.

Powassan virus is a rare, tick-borne flavivirus that can have severe effects on the human nervous system. The deer tick transmits Powassan, which is a rare infection that’s on the rise, with 33 cases in 2017 alone. There are currently no vaccines or treatments for Powassan virus infection, so hospitalization is imperative to help with breathing complications and brain swelling.

The most peculiar tick-borne disease on the list, alpha-gal syndrome, occurs when the alpha-gal sugar molecule – often found in red meats like beef and pork – is transmitted into the human body. This molecule has been associated with the bite of the lone star tick, transmitted through saliva. Studies are still ongoing to find a specific link between alpha-gal syndrome and ticks, but the result for a human can be a tick-caused red meat allergy.

Tick-borne illnesses can also be transported overseas. U.S. military personnel and their family members deploy to various regions of the world, where they can be exposed to arthropod-borne diseases that the rest of the U.S. population does not encounter.

“These deployments expose service members and families to novel pathogens which may be introduced in the U.S. when infected personnel redeploy back home,” Wanja said.

Luckily, there are various ways to reduce the chances of getting tick-borne infections. They include avoiding areas where ticks may be found and checking for ticks if someone conducts activities that might bring them into tick-prone areas.

Use of skin-topical repellents and treated clothing, wearing of pants tucked in shoes and boots, and proper removal of ticks to avoid pathogens being injected into the body can also prevent the spread of these illnesses.

For more prevention tips and ways to identify different bugs and bites, visit the Military Health System’s Bug Week page.

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