Throughout the United States, cases of tick-borne illnesses are on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that, since the late 1990s, cases of Lyme disease have risen more than 300%. And the journal Entomology Today reports that the ticks that carry Lyme disease are expanding their range and can now be found in 48% of U.S. counties. That puts a lot of people at risk for this and other serious diseases.
Ticks can be infected with bacteria, viruses, or parasites, some of which can be fatal. And all it takes it a single bite to make you or your family ill. I know because in 2012, I was bitten by a Lone Star tick while traveling around the country in a camper. Because of that one bite, I developed alpha-gal syndrome, an allergy to red meat. I was ill for months before we figured out what was wrong.
Mosquitoes are even worse. The World Health Organization (WHO) has named the mosquito one of the “deadliest animals in the world” because they cause millions of deaths each year. The CDC reports that illnesses from mosquitoes and ticks collectively tripled from 2004 to 2016.
So what can you do to protect yourself and your family from ticks and mosquitoes? Let’s take a look.
Types of Tick-Borne Illness
Ticks can carry a long list of diseases. Here are some of the most widespread, as well as one illness that’s only just now being researched.
This is not a full list of tick-borne diseases; you can see a full list on the CDC website.
Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria and is transmitted to humans through the bite of a deer tick (also known as a black-legged tick).
Each year, 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported, according to the CDC. However, this number might be dramatically off; some studies suggest the number could be closer to 300,000. More than 96% of Lyme disease cases occur in 14 states located in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
The symptoms of Lyme disease can vary and depend on the stage of infection. Early symptoms, which appear three to 30 days after a tick bite, include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Muscle and joint aches
In 70% to 80% of cases, the infected person will also develop a rash, called Erythema migrans (EM), around the site of the bite, typically seven days after the bite. This rash expands gradually over time and can resemble a bull’s-eye. It can grow up to 12 inches across and may feel hot to the touch, but it is not itchy or painful.
If left untreated, more severe symptoms of Lyme disease will develop a few weeks to a few months after the initial bite. These symptoms include:
- Severe headache and neck stiffness
- Additional spread of the EM rash around the body
- Arthritis and severe joint pain, especially around the knees
- Dizziness or shortness of breath
- Facial palsy (drooping and loss of muscle control)
- Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
- Pain in tendons, muscles, joints, and bones
- Shooting pains in hands and feet
- Nerve pain
- Short-term memory loss
- Heart palpitations
People who are treated early with antibiotics typically recover from Lyme disease in a few weeks. It’s crucial to see your doctor if you’ve been bitten and start to experience flu-like symptoms. The earlier treatment begins, the more likely you are to recover quickly.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a bacterial infection transmitted through the bite of several species of ticks, including the American dog tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick, and brown dog tick. Rocky Mountain spotted fever cases occur throughout the U.S., but more than 60% of cases occur in North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
According to the CDC, Rocky Mountain spotted fever has been reported and tracked since 1940. Cases increased from 1.7 per million people in 2000 to 14.2 per million people in 2012. Transmission rates are highest in May, June, July, and August.
If left untreated, Rocky Mountain spotted fever can often be fatal within eight days after the initial bite.
Early symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever resemble the flu and can include:
- Muscle pain
- Stomach pain
- Lack of appetite
A spreading rash is also a common symptom, but it’s not present in every case and sometimes doesn’t develop until later in the infection. Because of this, Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be difficult to diagnose. The rash typically develops two to four days after the initial bite and can look like pinpoints or larger red splotches.
If you’ve been bitten by a tick, or you’ve spent time in areas where ticks are present, and you develop flu-like symptoms, see your doctor immediately. They can order a blood test to determine if you’ve become infected with Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Although test results can take weeks, your doctor will likely put you on antibiotics, typically doxycycline, to begin treatment. If left untreated, Rocky Mountain spotted fever can result in the amputation of limbs or fingers due to damaged blood vessels, as well as mental disability, paralysis, or death. The CDC reports that 25% of people diagnosed with Rocky Mountain spotted fever have to be hospitalized at some point during their illness.
Babesiosis is caused by parasites that infect red blood cells. It is spread by the deer (or black-legged) tick. This tick ingests the parasites when it bites a rodent, such as a mouse or squirrel, or a larger mammal, such as a deer. If the tick attaches to a human afterward, it passes on these parasites. The ticks that spread babesiosis are found in the Upper Midwest and Northeast and typically pass on the infection when they’re in the nymph stage and no larger than a poppy seed.
Babesiosis destroys red blood cells, which can lead to hemolytic anemia. This, in turn, can cause jaundice or dark urine.
The symptoms of babesiosis can vary. Some people experience no symptoms at all, while the condition is life-threatening for others. When symptoms do occur, they are flu-like and can include:
- Body aches
- Loss of appetite
Babesiosis is very serious for people who have a compromised immune system due to cancer, AIDS, or other conditions, people who do not have a spleen, people who have liver or kidney disease, and the elderly. If left untreated in these individuals, babesiosis can lead to a number of serious medical conditions and even death.
A blood test is needed to diagnose babesiosis. Because babesiosis is a parasite, it must be treated with antiparasitic drugs like those used for malaria.
Alpha-gal syndrome is most often caused by the Lone Star tick, which is typically found in Texas and on the East Coast from the Southeast on up through New England. Because the allergy is so new, researchers are not sure if any other species can cause the same reaction.
Alpha-gal syndrome is spread when the tick bites an animal, such as a cow or pig, and then bites a human, mixing their blood. Humans don’t have the alpha-gal sugar in their blood, but mammals do. When the alpha-gal sugar is introduced into a person’s blood, their body develops an immune response to the perceived “threat.” When that person eats red meat, the body’s immune system kicks in and causes an allergic reaction.
It’s unknown how many people have developed alpha-gal syndrome. The allergy is relatively new; doctors only began seeing cases in the 1990s, and researchers didn’t begin studying the condition until the late 2000s.
Alpha-gal syndrome can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms don’t occur until red meat is digested by the small intestine, which typically takes three to eight hours after eating. Once symptoms develop, they can include:
- Rash and itching, often on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
- Nausea, severe stomach cramping, and vomiting
- Runny nose
In some cases, people who develop the alpha-gal allergy can experience an anaphylactic reaction that can be life-threatening. Symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction can include:
- Swelling of the lips or tongue
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling of the throat
- Dizziness or fainting
- Rapid heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Stomach cramping
If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911 or visit the emergency room immediately.
Currently, there is no cure for alpha-gal syndrome. However, the good news is that this allergy will go away on its own. Although researchers are only just beginning to study this condition, Dr. Scott Commins, a researcher at University of North Carolina School of Medicine, has found that its severity decreases over time, typically after 24 months or more.
It’s important to note that in rare cases, the alpha-gal allergy might cause you to become allergic to other foods such as dairy products and seeds or seed oils that have sugars similar to the alpha-gal sugar.
This happened to me. Within a few months of my initial bite, I also became allergic to dairy products and certain seed oils. While the reaction to red meat was troubling, I developed an anaphylactic reaction to sesame seed oil. It took around three years for my allergy to red meat to subside; however, six years later, I still have the allergy to sesame and don’t know if it will ever go away.
How to Prevent Tick Bites
It’s scary to think about the diseases and illnesses that can be caused by such a tiny bug. Fortunately, there are many ways to limit your exposure to ticks and keep your family safe.
The best way to avoid getting sick from a tick bite is not to get bitten in the first place. The CDC has a list of best practices to use when you’re out in the yard or the woods.
1. Know Where Ticks Like to Hide
Ticks love tall grass and shady areas. When possible, avoid tall grass and stay in the sunshine. When hiking, walk in the center of the trail.
2. Use Deterrent
The CDC recommends using a tick spray on your clothing and gear that contains 0.5% permethrin; this deterrent will last through several washes. For your skin, you should use a tick repellent approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that contains one of the following ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone.
You can find recommended repellents on the EPA website.
3. Check Your Clothing and Body When You Come Inside
Ticks can be as small as a poppy seed or large and easy to spot. Whenever you come inside, it’s important to take off your clothes and put them in a hot dryer for 10 minutes. This will kill any ticks hanging onto your clothing.
Next, check your body using a handheld mirror. Ticks like warm, moist areas, so pay particular attention to your groin, your armpits, behind your ears, inside your belly button, and in your hair. They will also gravitate to tight spots, such as the point where your pants sit on your hips.
Try to take a shower within two hours of coming indoors. According to the CDC, this can reduce your chance of developing Lyme disease and will help wash off unattached ticks.
Protect Your Yard Naturally
One of the safest ways to keep ticks out of your yard is to use a natural tick repellent like EcoSMART Organic Insect Killer. This repellent uses essential oils such as wintergreen, clove, and thyme to repel ticks and almost 100 other crawling insects. It’s 100% natural, smells great, and is completely safe for children and pets. It also won’t contaminate local water supplies.
I live in the mountains of North Carolina, surrounded by forest, which means ticks are very bad here during the summer. This is our second year using this product to keep ticks out of our yard, and it’s incredibly effective. I haven’t found a tick in the grass, on the deck, or on us since we spread the granules in late spring. We had the same results last year.
Each bag is 10 pounds and will cover up to 5,000 square feet. You can find EcoSMART Organic Insect Killer at Lowes, WalMart, and Amazon, but keep in mind that the price varies widely. We purchase our EcoSMART granules at Lowes and pay $13 per bag; on Amazon, the price is around $30 per bag. So it pays to shop around if you can find it locally.
Redesign Your Yard
Ticks love long grass, moist areas, and shade. If your yard has short grass, plenty of sunshine, and stays dry, ticks won’t want to hang out there. Go out into your yard, look at the places where ticks might be hiding, and ask yourself what you could do to eliminate or change these areas to make them less hospitable for ticks.
Another way to keep ticks out of your yard is to lay down mulch or gravel in a line at least two feet wide between your yard and the edges of any trees or heavy bushes. Ticks don’t like to walk across mulch and gravel, so this can be a good way to keep them away. You should also keep piles of leaves and brush far away from your yard; these are havens for mice and chipmunks, which carry ticks.
Several plants are known to repel ticks and other insects. Planting a variety of these around your yard will help keep the ticks at bay. These plants include:
- Rose geranium
- American beautyberry
- Mexican marigolds
- Fleabane daisy
Bear in mind that some of these plants are known to be toxic to people and pets. Pennyroyal, for example, can cause miscarriage in women and pets if ingested. Rue, wormwood, and citronella are toxic to pets. Make sure you research a plant’s possible toxicity before planting it in your yard.
Use Natural Tick Spray
Although tick repellents containing DEET are well-known for keeping ticks off clothing and skin, many people are reluctant to use the chemical because of its potential toxicity.
After reviewing the chemical in 2014, the EPA found no known risks to human health, and they feel it’s safe to use even on children. However, other researchers have found DEET to cause certain adverse reactions. Duke University pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia found that mice exposed to DEET experienced brain cell death and behavioral changes, according to Scientific American. If you’re concerned about using DEET on your family, you can try a natural alternative such as the following.
Cedarwood oil is an essential oil derived from the cedar tree. Ancient Egyptians used it to embalm their dead because it was so effective at keeping away insects. Cedarwood oil is effective against ticks and mosquitoes, as well as fleas and many other bugs. It’s also relatively inexpensive; you can get a 1-ounce bottle on Amazon for around $7.
To make a cedarwood oil spray, mix 50 drops of oil with 4 ounces of water and put it in a small spray bottle. Use this spray liberally on your skin and clothing. It’s also safe and effective on pets and children. I use cedarwood oil with my own family. We’re out in tall grass and in the woods fairly often, and I haven’t found a tick on any of us since I started using this spray.
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
Lemon eucalyptus is the only essential oil approved by the CDC for use against ticks. Like cedarwood, lemon eucalyptus naturally repels ticks and flying insects.
It’s important to note that lemon eucalyptus is a specific plant under the genus name Eucalyptus citriodora. It’s not the same as a lemon and eucalyptus oil blend like you can find on Amazon. While a lemon and eucalyptus blend might smell nice, it won’t be as effective against ticks as the oil from the lemon eucalyptus plant. You can find lemon eucalyptus essential oil at Mountain Rose Herbs.
Lemon eucalyptus oil can be used on its own or mixed with cedarwood oil for greater effectiveness. All you need to do is follow the same mixing formula described above for cedarwood oil. Some commercially produced bug deterrents, such as OFF! Botanicals, also contain oil of lemon eucalyptus.
This option won’t work for everyone, but if you’ve been thinking about raising chickens, they’re great tick killers. They love to eat ticks and will do an excellent job of keeping them out of your yard. Other ground-feeding birds such as robins will also eat ticks.
Types of Mosquito-Borne Illness
Mosquitoes transmit a long list of illnesses and diseases, including:
- West Nile virus
- Zika virus
- Dengue virus
- Yellow fever
- Chikungunya virus
This is not a full list of mosquito-borne diseases; you can see a full list on the CDC website.
West Nile is the most common disease transported by mosquitoes in the U.S. According to the CDC, 2,002 cases of West Nile were reported in 2017. Of these, 67% were meningitis or encephalitis, the most serious form of the disease.
Fortunately, only one out of five people develop symptoms when they contract the disease. Of these infected persons, only 1 out of 150 will develop serious or life-threatening symptoms.
West Nile is spread when a mosquito feeds off an infected bird and then bites a human.
Those who do develop symptoms from West Nile might think they have the flu. Symptoms include:
- Body aches
- Joint pain
The CDC states that most people who experience symptoms will get well on their own with no treatment; however, symptoms of fatigue and weakness can last weeks or months.
People who experience severe symptoms from West Nile can develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) or meningitis (swelling of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord). Symptoms of these conditions include:
- High fever
- Neck stiffness
- Muscle weakness
- Vision loss
People at greater risk for developing a severe reaction to West Nile include the elderly and those with other serious underlying health conditions such as hypertension, kidney disease, cancer, and diabetes. Around 1 in 10 people who develop serious symptoms die.
Your healthcare provider will have to do a blood test to confirm West Nile virus, and there is no vaccine. Those with serious symptoms might need to be hospitalized for supportive care until they recover.
Keeping Mosquitoes at Bay
Mosquitoes plague all of us; they can be found everywhere except the North and South Poles. Fortunately, a few simple steps can keep them away from your family.
Get Rid of Standing Water
Mosquitoes breed in standing water, so do whatever you can to get rid of standing water in your yard. That includes water that might be in children’s toys, kiddie pools, clogged gutters, water features like unused fountains or birdbaths, and even the trays under your flower pots.
Use Insect Repellent
Avon Skin So Soft has been around for decades, and for good reason; it’s very effective at repelling mosquitoes. I grew up in the South, where mosquitoes were rampant most of the year, and Skin So Soft was the gold standard for spending time outdoors in relative peace.
Don’t Sweat It
Mosquitoes love sweat and bacteria, which makes you more prone to bites if you’re working in the yard. You can reduce your chance of mosquito bites by showering as soon as your yard work is done and then going back outside. The less you sweat, the less you’ll get bitten.
Many of the same plants that repel ticks will also ward off mosquitoes. However, bear in mind that some of these plants need to be physically “attacked” before they’ll emit the chemicals that repel mosquitoes. That means you’ll need to brush against them or step on them to get them to work.
In order to maximize their potential, plant bug-repellant species near walkways where they will be brushed against often, or in pots or plant boxes on your deck where you can give them a hearty rub daily.
After my experience with a tick-borne illness, I became diligent about keeping ticks at bay. Since having children and moving to an area where ticks are widespread, I’ve become even more careful. I can’t imagine how hard it would be if one of my children were to contract a tick-borne illness, so I do everything I can to make sure they don’t get bitten.
Have you ever fallen ill due to a tick or mosquito bite? What do you do to keep ticks and mosquitoes out of your yard and off your family?