Tick's Maybe Small but Carry Serious Illness

The Tick’s On You

You’ve just spent a great, extended weekend tromping around in the woods, but now you’re back home and eager for that first hot shower in days. But before you can even lather up, you notice you’re not alone. A tiny parasitic hitchhiker has attached itself to you. 


Acquainted with ticks in general, you know they’re not pleasant to have around, so the first thing you do is get a pair of fine-tipped tweezers, grab the critter as close to the skin as you can and apply a steady, upward pull until it decides to let go. You then swab the area with rubbing alcohol (iodine also works) and wash your hands with soap and water. 

Of course, there might be more of the critters rummaging around your personal space, clothes and gear, so you go into full-bore inspection mode. You hop back into the shower and check your hair, waist, legs, belly button and other areas that might conceal them. You wash your hair and rinse a little bit longer to flush out any creepy crawlies. Then you throw your camping clothes into the dryer and tumble them for an hour on high heat. You also check the camping gear you brought inside and deal with any stragglers appropriately. If you took your dog along, he gets a once-over as well.

Sometimes, though, it’s not enough. Sometimes one slips through the cracks and, depending on where you live, you could find yourself very ill. In Florida there are a handful of different diseases associated with certain tick bites: Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Human Ehrlichiosis/Anaplasmosis, Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness and Rickettsia parkeri.

Let’s take them one by one.

According to the Florida Department of Health, Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium transmitted to humans by an infected tick. In the Southeast, the blacklegged tick is the suspected culprit. It’s the most commonly reported tick-related illness in the United States — however, most cases are reported up north in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeastern and North-Central regions. Symptoms of Lyme disease include a characteristic “bull’s-eye” rash, which appears from three to 30 days after being bitten by the infected tick. Caveat: the rash may not appear at the bite site, so be careful. Other symptoms, such as fever, headache, chills, fatigue, stiff neck and muscle aches, have been known to occur. Unfortunately, the disease can come in two stages, and symptoms during the later stage may not appear for months or years. These symptoms can play havoc with the brain, heart, joints and muscles. Recurring problems have been recorded in some patients. Early detection and quick treatment with antibiotics are the keys to recovery but may be less effective for those who experience symptoms over the long haul.Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is caused by another type of bacterium, and in Florida it’s mainly transmitted by the American dog tick. Symptoms of this illness usually start two to 14 days after a tick bite and can initially cause fever, headache, vomiting, muscle aches and lack of appetite. Other symptoms can happen later and include stomach pain, joint pain and diarrhea. The namesake rash appears on the wrists and ankles between two and five days after the fever starts. The rash then shows up on the palms, soles, arms, legs and trunk. But sometimes, the rash doesn’t appear at all. If detected early on, the problem can be treated with antibiotics. But if discovered later — when the disease has a stronger foothold — it could mean a trip to the hospital. The good news is, the tick needs to be attached from six to 20 hours to transmit the infection, so you have lots of time to hunt for and remove it.

How to remove a tick  

1. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. 

2. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.  

3. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water. 

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Human Monocytic Ehrlichiosis (HME) and Human Granulocytotropic Anaplasmosis (HGA) are caused by bites from the lone star tick and the black legged tick, respectively. The specific pathogens involved are Ehrlichia chaffeensis (for HME) and Anaplasma phagocytophilum (for HGA). People infected with either may not have symptoms, or have symptoms so mild they don’t bother to have it checked by their doctor. Those who become really sick usually start having strong symptoms between five and 10 days after the bite. Fever, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, diarrhea and even confusion are the major symptoms. That makes diagnosis difficult, because many of the signs are similar to those of other diseases. Of course, the best thing to do is see your doctor as soon as possible and start taking antibiotics. Both diseases can cause severe illness, and half of those infected wind up being hospitalized.

Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI) is a disease similar to Lyme disease but transmitted by the lone star tick. The symptoms are similar, and even include a bull’s-eye-shaped rash, and the two diseases are often confused. The difference is, the chronic arthritis and other neurological symptoms associated with Lyme disease are not present with STARI. Patients are reported to recover quickly from STARI with a round of antibiotics.

Transmitted by the Gulf Coast tick (and perhaps the lone star tick), Rickettsia parkeri is thought of as being less severe than Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever disease (and can be misdiagnosed) but features the usual bag of tick bite symptoms like fever, fatigue, headache, muscle pain and generalized rash. According to the Florida Department of Health, several cases have been reported in North Florida since 2007.

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