Ticks and Tick-borne Illnesses: Their Connection to Lice

Ticks and Lice: Be prepared this summer and fall

Pennsylvania has led the nation for the past five years in confirmed cases of Lyme disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The Center for Lice Control (CLC) focuses on educating the public about head lice and eradicating these pests that terrorize our clients. However, lice are not the only popular parasites of the summer. We get a lot of questions about ticks and resulting tick-borne illnesses that can be debilitating, so we decided to share some information we have collected. Ticks and lice are similar in a few ways: They are both arthropods, both parasites are very stealthy, and they both need blood to survive. You can use a lice comb like the KaPOW! Nit Remover Comb to remove both ticks and lice. Human head lice travel from head to head, and they do not cause any risk beyond itchiness and frustration. However, ticks can spread diseases. The CLC wants you to be safe and enjoy the outdoors this summer, but because ticks can be dangerous to our health, it’s very important to have accurate information. Please take the time to understand what lice and ticks are as well as how to prevent them.

Ticks: Know the Enemy

There are hundreds of species of ticks and thousands of different types of lice but only three types of human lice. There are four species of ticks that are particularly common in Pennsylvania. The most common carrier of Lyme disease, the blacklegged tick, has a two-year life cycle. It starts with an engorged female laying eggs in mid- to late spring. The adults die after mating and laying their eggs. In summer the six-legged larvae hatch and immediately need a blood meal, so they attach to small mammals, such as mice, chipmunks, or birds, to feed since they are low to the ground. Larval activity peaks in mid- to late summer. Tick larvae are not carriers of Lyme disease (or other tick-borne diseases) when they hatch, but they can become carriers after they feed on other infected animals. Engorged tick larvae drop to the ground, where they wait out the winter and molt into the nymph stage. The blacklegged tick is often not killed by the cold winter weather.

The eight-legged nymphs begin looking for new hosts in the spring of the following year, with peak activity happening from May through July. If the nymphs fed on a host infected with the Lyme disease as larvae, they may have the potential to transmit the disease to humans and domestic or wild animals. Similar to lice, the tick nymphs are very small and hard to see (maybe the size of a poppy seed). This is often the tick life stage that transmits Lyme disease to humans because they are so small, difficult to see, and hard to remove.

Nymphs evolve into adults in the fall. Adult blacklegged ticks are larger and much easier to see on people and pets, making them easier to remove. Therefore, there is an overall lower chance of an adult feeding before it is caught in comparison to a nymph. Adult blacklegged ticks remain active in the fall and on warm winter days into the following spring. Deer are not hosts for Lyme disease, but they do provide a means of transport for the adult reproductive stage of blacklegged ticks.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is not immediately transmitted from an infected tick to a human; the tick must feed for 24 hours in order for the disease to be transmitted. Therefore, it is very important to find any ticks on the body and remove them immediately. Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose, as the symptoms are similar to those of other diseases, but it can be treated with antibiotics. Early detection is important.

Inspect your body (and your pet’s) carefully. If you find a tick on a person or pet, remove it as soon as possible with fine-tipped tweezers or a fine metal lice comb. It’s important not to crush the tick with the tweezers, so in some cases it’s better to use the lice comb instead. Slide the comb beneath the tick as close to the skin as you can and pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t squeeze or jerk it off the skin. After removing the tick, wash the bite area with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. 

A red circle appears and expands to form a large round lesion over a period of a few days or weeks. This lesion is commonly known as a bullseye and is usually about 2 inches in diameter. The center of this lesion tends to progressively clear. In addition, look for symptoms including headache, fever, sore throat, nausea, and late-phase symptoms that, left untreated, may progress to debilitating rheumatic, cardiac, and neurological conditions but rarely directly to death.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF)

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) was first recognized in the United States during the 1890s, but until the 1930s it was reported only in the Rocky Mountains. By 1963, over 90 percent of all cases were reported east of the Rockies. In the west, the disease is limited mainly to men who worked and spent time in wooded areas, while in the east, cases occur when people come in contact with infected ticks from their pets or in their yards.

RMSF comes from the American dog tick, the lone star tick, and the Rocky Mountain wood tick. Symptoms include a red-purple-black rash, usually on the wrists and ankles, which appears anywhere from two days to two weeks after the infection occurs. A fever, headaches, and feeling ill also are characteristic. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are used to treat RMSF. Diagnosis can be made with a blood test, but treatment should not be delayed, as fatalities do occur.

Tick Paralysis

Tick paralysis is not one of the tick-borne illnesses but a condition caused by toxins that a tick injects into its host during feeding. Most mammals can be affected, but children and small pets are more at risk.

Symptoms begin a day or two after initial attachment. The victim loses coordination and sensation in the extremities. The paralysis progresses in severity, the legs and arms become useless, the face may lose sensation, and speech becomes slurred. If the breathing center of the brain is affected, the victim may die. If the tick or ticks are found and removed, recovery begins immediately, and the effects disappear within a day.

Generally, this condition is associated with ticks attached around the head area, particularly at the base of the skull. Ticks that have been found to cause tick paralysis in the United States are the Rocky Mountain wood tick, the lone star tick, and the American dog tick. However, not all members of a species cause tick paralysis. The toxin that causes this condition is part of the salivary fluid that the tick injects. Because the problem is associated with ticks attached on the head, and because recovery is quick upon removal of the tick, it is theorized that the toxin acts locally and is broken down in the body rapidly. Tick paralysis occurs only sporadically; the important thing is to be aware that it exists and, when symptoms occur, to attempt to find the tick and remove it.

Powassan (POW) Virus

Powassan (POW) virus is nowhere near as common as Lyme disease, but with more and more cases appearing each year, it is a growing tick-borne illnesses concern. Most cases in the United States have occurred in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region. Signs of infection include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures, and memory loss. Because the virus can affect the brain, early medical attention is critical. Unlike Lyme, this tick-borne disease cannot be treated with antibiotics. Instead, those affected may need to be hospitalized to keep symptoms from becoming dire. While cases are still rare, it’s important to be aware of this virus and take the usual tick precautions, such as using insect repellents, wearing protective clothing, and doing thorough tick checks.

 

CDC Map of Tick-Borne Illnesses
CDC Map of Tick bourne illesses

Prevention and Control

The best advice for preventing Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses is to:

  • Avoid deer-tick infested areas, especially in May, June, and July, but also remain alert in September and October, when the adult tick population spikes again. Remember that winter is not necessarily a tick-free time: Adult ticks can become active anytime the temperature goes above 28°F and when there is no snow on the ground.
  • Wear protective, light-colored clothing while outdoors, including a broad-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt tucked in, and long pants tucked into the socks. After being outdoors, remove clothing and wash and dry it at a high temperature.
  • Check the body daily for the presence of ticks.
  • Use tick repellents (DEET).
  • Use fine-tipped tweezers or a fine metal lice comb to remove any ticks. It’s important not to crush the tick with the tweezers, so in some cases it’s better to use the lice comb instead. Slide the comb beneath the tick as close to the skin as you can and pull upward with steady, even pressure.
  • The tick should not be grabbed in the middle of its body because the gut contents may be expelled into the skin. The use of heat (lit match, cigarette, etc.) or petroleum jelly is NOT recommended to force the tick out. These methods will irritate the tick and may cause it to regurgitate its stomach contents into the individual, thereby increasing the possibility of infection.
  • Save the tick in a zip-top bag or wrap it in clear tape so you can have it tested for Lyme disease if concerned.
  • Seek immediate medical attention if early signs or symptoms of Lyme disease appear.

Tick Management as a Niche Service

There are a number of landscape pest management practices that can make your yard a less suitable habitat for blacklegged ticks. Here are some tips to help manage the portion of your property your family uses the most to minimize a tick habitat, including walkways, patios, play areas, gardens, and service areas (sheds, trash cans, etc.):

  • Regularly clean up brush and fallen leaves and remove weeds and brush at woodland edges.
  • Mow grass regularly throughout the growing season.
  • Restrict the use of dense groundcovers in areas heavily used by family members and pets because they maintain a humid environment that ticks prefer.
  • Discourage rodent activity by keeping grass, brush, and weeds trimmed, cleaning up leaf piles, and sealing stone walls.
  • Exclude deer through the use of fencing and deer-resistant plants, like marigolds, Iris sibirica, Longwood Blue (Caryopteris), and many more. While deer will eat almost anything when they are hungry, it is a good place to start. Excluding deer may reduce the number of egg-laying adult blacklegged ticks brought into your yard.
  • Do not have bird feeders near areas that your family uses because bird feeders attract deer and white-footed mice, especially in winter when other food sources are scarce.
  • Install children’s play sets and sandboxes away from woodland edges. Use hardwood mulch around these items rather than grass or other vegetation.
  • Create borders of wood chips or gravel at woodland edges and around stone walls to make them less attractive to rodents and blacklegged ticks.
  • Do not sacrifice good plant health, but limb up trees and thin their crowns to allow more sun in and reduce humidity, which makes an area less attractive to blacklegged ticks.

We hope this information is helpful. The CLC’s goal is to share accurate information so you can understand the enemy to make good, informed choices for your family. Checking for lice by doing a combing head check on wet hair with a good nit removal comb every two weeks is the best way to control lice outbreaks, and checking for ticks and removing them quickly and properly is the best way to avoid tick-borne diseases. If you find lice or a tick, we recommend that you seek safe and effective treatment right away.

For 12 years, the Center for Lice Control has been offering peace of mind with our treatment salon in Havertown, PA, and KaPOW! Lice Products available online and at locally owned pharmacies. Call our 24/7 lice hotline for questions or to schedule an appointment: (610) 324-5661. Please visit our website, www.CenterForLiceControl.com, for the most accurate treatment and prevention information as well as non-toxic lice products.



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