With the warmer weather comes more outdoor activities and more risk to encountering ticks. This has prompted the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) to issue  an advisory on preventing tick bites.

Characteristic spotted rash of Rocky Mountain spotted fever/CDC
Characteristic spotted rash of Rocky Mountain spotted fever/CDC

According to the OSDH, since 2012, there have been approximately 2,000 cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), ehrlichiosis, and tularemia among Oklahoma residents. Cases have ranged from 2 to 92 years of age; 11 percent of cases were hospitalized due to their illness. It is important to recognize the early symptoms and seek care as these diseases can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated early. In the past five years, four Oklahomans (two adults and two children) died due to tickborne diseases.

RMSF is a tick-borne disease caused by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii, and can be fatal if not treated promptly and correctly, even in previously healthy people. Symptoms typically include fever, abdominal pain, vomiting and muscle pain. A characteristic rash may develop a few days later. The rash typically consists of small, flat, pink, non-itchy spots on the wrists, forearms, and ankles that spreads to include the trunk, and sometimes the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.  However, some people never develop the rash, or the rash may have an atypical appearance.

Human ehrlichiosisis a disease caused by at least three different ehrlichial species in the United States. Typical ehrlichiosis symptoms include: fever, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches. Usually, these symptoms occur within 1-2 weeks following a tick bite.

Tularemia can be transmitted to people, such as hunters, who have handled infected animals. Infection can also arise from the bite of infected insects (most commonly ticks and deer flies); by exposure to contaminated food, water, or soil; by eating, drinking, putting hands to eyes, nose, or mouth before washing after outdoor activities; by direct contact with breaks in the skin; or by inhaling particles carrying the bacteria (through mowing or blowing vegetation and excavating soil).

Typical signs of infection in humans may include fever, chills, headache, swollen and painful lymph glands, and fatigue. If tularemia is caused by the bite of an infected insect or from bacteria entering a cut or scratch, it usually causes a skin ulcer or pustule and swollen glands. Eating or drinking food or water containing the bacteria may produce a throat infection, mouth ulcers, stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Inhaling the bacteria may cause an infection of the lungs with chest pain and coughing.

All three infections can be treated with antibiotics.

The OSDH advises those who participate in hiking, camping, bicycle trail riding, yard work, gardening and other outdoor activities to prevent tick bites by following the tips below:

  • Wear light-colored clothing to make ticks easier to see.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into socks to prevent ticks from attaching.
  • Wear closed-toe shoes, not sandals.
  • Hikers and bikers should stay in the center of trails to avoid grass and brush.
  • Check for ticks at least once per day, particularly along waistbands, the hairline and back of the neck, in the armpits and in the groin area.
  • Remove attached ticks as soon as possible using tweezers or fingers covered with a tissue.
  • Use an insect repellent containing 20 percent or more DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 on exposed skin for protection which lasts several hours.
  • Use products containing 0.5 percent permethrin only on clothing and gear, such as boots, pants and tents. Permethrin should not be used on the body.
  • Check with a veterinarian about tick control for pets. Dogs and cats can get tickborne illnesses too, and they are a vehicle for bringing ticks into a home if not on a tick-preventive regimen.