Small critters, big consequences: be mindful of tick-borne diseases

Ticks may be small, but they can spread damaging illnesses through one bite. Knowing what to look out for and how to prevent tick-borne illnesses can help service members and their families enjoy the outdoors all year-round.

Ticks bite people any time of the year, but they really respond to weather,” said Ellen Stromdahl, an entomologist at the Army Public Health Center.

The Army Public Health Center tests about 3,000 ticks a year for disease-causing pathogens. Taken off service members, retirees, and civilians, the ticks come from about 100 different military installations, Stromdahl said.

Top to bottom, illustration of black-legged tick, lone star tick, and dog tick. (Photo by Robert K. Lanier/Keller Army Community Hospital)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infections from ticks are increasing. They carry different diseases and can be found in various parts of the country depending on their species, said Stromdahl. Of all the tick-borne illnesses in the United States, one of the least-known viruses is also one of the most dangerous: Powassan virus.

With only 68 cases reported in the United States between 2006 and 2015, Powassan is rare, but the number of reported cases has increased in recent years, according to the CDC. The virus shows no signs at first, but symptoms begin anywhere from one week to a month after a bite from a black-legged tick. These symptoms include seizures, weakness, headaches, fever, coordination loss, and speech issues. Most reported cases of Powassan have been in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region.

“The fatality rate is about 10 percent,” said Stromdahl, “and Powassan can have long-lasting consequences even if you survive. However, some people infected with the virus are asymptomatic.” She added there’s no specific treatment or cure available.

In severe cases, hospitalization can be required because of inflammation in the brain. About one-half of those who survive have permanent neurological damage, such as memory problems or headaches.

One of the most commonly reported tick-borne diseases in the United States is Lyme disease. About 20 to 30 percent of black-legged ticks are infected with the pathogen that causes Lyme, said Stromdahl. In 2015, more than 28,000 confirmed cases were reported in the United States. Thousands of cases among service members and other Military Health System beneficiaries have been reported over the last decade.

Early symptoms of Lyme can seem flu-like, including fever, chills, fatigue, headache, aches, and swollen lymph nodes. A characteristic sign of Lyme is a bull’s-eye rash around the tick bite, but up to 20 percent of patients may not develop, or do not recall, a rash.

“It’s a preventable disease and, if left untreated, it can have some pretty serious consequences,” said Air Force Col. Carol Fisher, Chief of Defense Health Agency’s Public Health Division. Symptoms can worsen days to months after getting bitten by an infected tick. These signs can include joint pain and swelling, nerve pain, headaches and neck stiffness, and fatigue. Patients can also experience other rashes, heart palpitations, difficulty walking, and problems with short-term memory.

People can help protect themselves against ticks by avoiding wooded areas and areas with high grass, using a tick repellent on skin and clothing, and checking for ticks after being outside, said Fisher. Checking household pets can also help

“It’s great to be outdoors and active, but we also need to be mindful of the risks ticks can bring to us,” said Stromdahl, echoing Fisher’s warning

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