Dos and Don’ts: Ticks


June 1, 2013

A 2-year-old girl was showing signs of acute onset paralysis at a medical center. After a clinical examination and medical tests, her condition wasn’t determined.

Thinking about a rare case in her medical training, a pediatric neurologist decided to conduct a more unusual test. She checked the girl’s hair, and found the problem: an American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis). After engorging from prolonged attachment and feeding, this tick species transmits salivary neurotoxins that can cause paralysis and death. The neurologist removed the tick with tweezers, which allowed the toddler to recover completely without any lasting effects.

According to a study published in the January 2010 issue of the American Journal of Medical Toxicology, only 50 cases of tick paralysis were documented in the United States between 1946 and 2006. But the American dog tick is thought to be capable of transmitting diseases to humans, including Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSV), ehrlichiosis and tularemia.

Frequently encountered, although adults are inactive and rarely observed, unfed American dog tick females and males are reddish-brown and 3/16-in. long. Females have a large, silver-colored spot behind the head and become 0.5-in. long — about the size of a small grape — after feeding. Males have silver lines on their backs and don’t get much larger after feeding.

Adult American dog ticks will feed on humans and medium- to large-size mammals, such as raccoons and dogs. Larvae and nymphs feed on small warm-blooded animals, such as mice and birds. Protect yourself with the following steps:

  • Do avoid unnecessary contact with soil, leaf litter and vegetation.
  • Don’t forget to avoid dense woods and bushy areas.
  • Do wear light-colored, tightly woven clothing so ticks can be seen easily for prompt removal.
  • Don’t forget to wear enclosed shoes, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. (Tuck pants legs into socks or boots).
  • Do check clothes and any exposed skin frequently for ticks while outdoors.
  • Don’t wander from the centers of cleared, well-traveled trails.
  • Do use insect repellent.
  • Don’t postpone showering after going indoors (preferably within two hours) to wash off ticks and find them more easily.
  • Do conduct a final, full-body tick check at the end of the day.
  • Don’t neglect a pet. Remove ticks promptly.

About the Author

MITCHELL, D.O., DVM, PsyD, BCE, is technical director of PestWest, and a frequent contributor to PMP.

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