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Summer Safety Series: What Makes You Tick?

by Lauren Pope, Staff Writer


We’ve covered a lot of ground this summer, from staying safe on your boat to making sure you stay hydrated in the proper way. Our final installment of this series will talk about a creepy crawly that is, unfortunately, a risk nearly year round here in Louisiana. We’re talking ticks.

I stumbled upon this Facebook post earlier this summer. Are those freckles? Bits of dirt?


No. They’re ticks. The poor child was covered in hundreds of tiny ticks. Honestly, it’s enough to make me never want to leave my house, but we spoke with Monica E. Embers, PhD, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Tulane National Primate Research Center, and she’s helped to sort out fact from fear.

“These are actually larval ticks that hatch after the females lay eggs. They can be very obnoxious if you happen upon them, but they are less likely to transmit infections than the nymphs. They can, however, cause itching and possible allergic reactions. To prevent larval tick bites, it’s important to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants (easier when it isn’t 100 degrees out) when walking in woods or tall grass areas. You should also use tick repellents such as those that contain DEET, on exposed skin. Carefully check yourself and your pets for ticks after being outdoors,” she explained.


That tick avoidance advice is good for adult ticks too.  Additionally, “If you are hiking, stay on the path. Ticks love moist leaf litter and tall grasses.  Perform tick checks, realizing that they can be very small, and if you do have an attached tick, use tweezers to pull it out, grabbing the tick as close to the skin as possible. Save the tick, as the species could inform your doctor about what could have been transmitted should you show symptoms. There are also tick-testing services where you can send the tick to be tested for pathogens.”


However, sometimes, despite our best efforts, we might pick up an unwanted hitchhiker. I asked Dr. Embers which types of ticks we were likely to encounter here in Louisiana and she told me that our big culprits here are Gulf Coast and Lone Star ticks, American dog ticks, and deer ticks.


Gulf Coast Tick


Gulf Coast Tick

We have a significant number of Amblyomma (Gulf Coast and Lone star) and American dog ticks, which have the potential to transmit Rickettsia bacteria. These bacteria can cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and R. parkeri rickettsiosis. The Amblyomma ticks may also induce red meat allergy and transmit the microbe which causes ehrlichiosis.”





Wait, red meat allergy? Yep. Sadly those little red ticks might make you allergic to steak and hamburgers. There’s no treatment for the allergy either. If you catch it, you just have to avoid red meat indefinitely. Thank goodness they don’t make us allergic to crawfish!



Deer Tick

Deer Tick

 “The Lyme disease ticks, or deer ticks, are also here but a very small percentage of them carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. For these diseases, the risks are relatively low, but not zero. If you find a tick attached, look out for the signs of disease, including a rash (which can be maculopapular, with small, flat, pink, non-itchy spots or an eschar/ulcerative lesion at the bite site), fever, chills, headache, malaise, muscle pain GI symptoms and altered mental status.”


She also emphasized that early detection is key for complete infection clearance. The sooner you start antibiotic treatment after exposure, the more likely you are to have the infection completely resolved after just one standard course of antibiotics. However, her lab at Tulane National Primate Research Center has found that not all infections are cleared after just one course of antibiotics. This can lead to chronic Lyme disease.  She likened it to the bacteria which causes tuberculosis which requires a much longer, and more diverse antibiotic regimen to resolve. Complicating matters, the diagnostic tests for Lyme aren’t very good, so it’s possible for you to continue to have a symptomatic case without “testing positive.” Her lab is working on a better test as we speak, but until then, she recommends people who are still experiencing symptoms to work with a doctor who has experience treating chronic Lyme such as those found on the Lyme Disease Association’s Database.

She cautions though for people to not seek out alternative treatments that haven’t been sufficiently studied. The key is finding a doctor who is willing to find the right antibiotic regimen to clear the infection, not to throw money away trying unproven methods that could allow the bacteria to keep growing.

One last word on Lyme disease: it turns out dogs can get it too! Thankfully, your local veterinarian should have a good test for puppy dog Lyme and they tend to respond well to antibiotic therapy. Ultimately, the best way to prevent tick borne diseases is to practice good tick protection policies and to do through tick checks after spending time outdoors. This goes for your and your furry friends.


We all hope to never encounter a blood sucking fiend, but if you do, hopefully you now feel a bit more confident in how to respond.

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