For such tiny creatures, ticks can be a big health risk.
That’s because they feed on blood by burrowing into your skin, and they’re happy to eat for hours, even days. While most tick bites are not dangerous, deer ticks can leave behind parasites that cause debilitating illnesses like Lyme Disease.
The Massachusetts Department of Health estimates there were as many as 15,000 cases of Lyme Disease reported statewide in 2016. It is likely that many more cases went unreported.
The good news is that Lyme Disease can be prevented with antibiotics if a bite is caught early enough. Dr. Sangita Pillai, a physician with Circle Health Urgent Care in Billerica, says it is important to act quickly to remove the tick and, if necessary, be treated for a rash or any other physical reaction to the bite.
Dr. Pillai stresses that prevention is the best medicine when it comes to ticks. Using insect repellent with at least 30% deet – particularly around the shoes, socks and legs – is the most effective way to avoid a bite. It is also important to reapply the repellent every couple of hours.
Another effective repellent is permethrin, which is often used on clothing and both repels and kills ticks.
Ticks like moisture, so you will often find them in the woods, long grass and around wetlands. They are typically active from April to October, but they can survive a frost and live as long as two years. The most dangerous is the female deer tick, a small tick with an orange body.
If a tick does latch on, it should be removed properly. The goal is to avoid squeezing the tick’s body or breaking it apart, so Dr. Pillai recommends using fine-tipped tweezers to pull the tick from the head. Burning the tick or smothering it with petroleum jelly are techniques that can actually make things worse.
If you aren’t sure you can remove it safely, it’s OK to seek help. “Our staff is trained to remove ticks and minimize the risk of exposure to whatever the tick may be carrying,” she says.
If you think you may have been exposed to a tick-borne illness, it is important to be seen quickly.
“Come in early after finding the tick, preferably within 24 hours,” she says. “If you have the tick, bring it with you safely and we can identify it.”
Dr. Francis Magro, an infectious disease physician affiliated with Lowell General Hospital, says most visible bites won’t cause Lyme Disease because it usually takes a tick 36 hours to transmit the parasites.
“If it’s engorged, or it’s been there awhile, it’s harder to tell,” Dr. Magro says.
While the telltale sign of potential Lyme infection is a “bulls-eye” shaped rash, it is important to pay attention to other symptoms, like strange headaches or flu-like symptoms, he says. Often the most dangerous tick bites are the ones you can’t see.
While most tick bites will be relatively harmless, Dr. Pillai says if you have any concerns, don’t be afraid to get checked out.
“If necessary, the staff can talk to you about the pros and cons of treatment,” Dr. Pillai says.