Experts across the country expect this to be the worst summer in history for ticks and tick-borne disease diagnoses, and Oklahoma is no exception.
Why ticks could be worse than ever this year
Surges in tick populations start with surges of acorns. Oak trees produce a surplus of acorns every four to five years, especially in years with heavier rainfall. Acorns feed a multiplying population of disease-carrying mice. Tick nymphs attach themselves to mice early in their lifespan, acquiring the diseases they can later pass on to humans and pets.
Thanks to rainfall and acorns, last year’s mice population spiked higher than normal, and with a mild winter and temperatures on the rise earlier than usual, Oklahoma’s climate has created the perfect storm for a surge in the number of disease-ridden ticks.
Why Lyme disease is so dangerous
The initial symptoms of Lyme disease don’t look much different than a typical flu case: muscle aches, fever, swelling in the joints and fatigue. However, these similarities and the fact that a Lyme disease diagnosis requires a blood test make it difficult to confirm. About a week after the initial infection, watch for a bullseye-shaped rash to appear around the bite. Severe headaches, nerve pain and a stiff neck can all be signs of Lyme disease.
Did you know? Lyme disease is named for Lyme, Connecticut, with U.S. cases originating in the New England area. Lyme disease has since spread across the country.
If misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, a delay in treatment can cause Lyme disease symptoms to worsen. If not caught early, Lyme disease can manifest with long-term symptoms like heart arrhythmias, chronic arthritis and even memory problems months after the initial tick bite and infection.
The tick-borne disease Oklahomans should know about
While Lyme disease may get the most publicity during tick season, it’s actually not common at all in Oklahoma. “Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose, but unless someone has traveled to New England, where it originated, we wouldn’t expect them to be infected,” says William Banner, M.D., a critical care and toxicology specialist at INTEGRIS who also serves as President of the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, however, is a concern for Oklahoma residents. “Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) has nothing to do with the Rocky Mountains,” Dr. Banner explains. “Oklahoma is actually one of the epicenters for RMSF. This is the one that scares us,” he says.
Symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever include:
- Rash (a splotchy rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet)
- Muscle pain
- Abdominal pain
“If you have a tick on you, and then are running a fever a few days later, you need to let your doctor know you’ve been exposed to a tick,” Dr. Banner says. “There’s no blood test to diagnose RMSF, but we we’ll want to start antibiotics as soon as possible. By the time symptoms are evident, we’re playing catch up,” he says.
A week on antibiotics can clear up most cases of RMSF, but some cases are much more severe. Extreme illness can warrant an ICU stay, and some cases can be fatal.
How to protect your family and your pets from ticks
While Oklahoma has consistently been one of the least-affected states for Lyme disease, our neighbors in Kansas and Texas have reported dozens of cases each year for more than a decade. In our state, the main tick-borne illnesses include Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and a similar tick-borne infection called Ehrlichiosis.
As you enjoy the outdoors with your family this summer, be on heightened alert for ticks on yourself, your children, and your pets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the following precautions:
- Wear protective clothing when hiking or walking through tall grass
- Use extra caution in heavily wooded, grassy, or leaf-filled areas, especially when humidity is high
- Wear bug repellent with DEET
- Shower within two hours of outdoor activities, making sure to check and thoroughly wash crevices (ears, belly button, backside, back of the knees and between the legs)
- Thoroughly check your pet’s coat for ticks on a regular basis and after your pet has been near leaf piles or tall grass
- Ask your veterinarian about tick prevention for pets, especially those that live outside
Tricks for tick removal
If you do find a tick (or a few), remove it immediately with tweezers. “Slowly pull on it, but don’t squeeze it. You don’t want to leave any parts behind, and squeezing a partially embedded tick can actually cause it to go deeper into the skin,” Dr. Banner says. Dispose of the tick by flushing it down the toilet, and wash the affected body area with soap and water. If you do exhibit any symptoms within a few days of removing a tick, call your local poison control center or your physician.
A trick to kill any ticks you may have missed on your clothing? Throw the clothes in the dryer for a quick 10-minute spin, before washing them. Ticks don’t drown easily, but they cannot withstand dry environments, so even a short dryer cycle should be enough to suffocate and kill them.