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The need-to-know facts about tick-borne diseases

Tick-borne diseases are on the rise. Luckily, many of these diseases are both preventable and curable with the right knowledge. How much do you know about protecting yourself, your family, and your pets from tick-borne disease? Find out here.

Tick biology

Ticks are eight-legged bloodsuckers that lack wings, hindering their ability to feed freely. To compensate for this, ticks have developed a feeding strategy that scientists refer to as “questing.” Keeping their hind legs planted, they expand their front arms to latch onto a host.

tick questing on human skin

Ticks aren’t just opportunistic hunters waiting for their next meal to graze by. They use their sense of smell to detect carbon dioxide, a byproduct of exhaling.

These tiny invaders have complex mouthparts that allow them to hook and anchor into their prey. Concealed under palps, ticks use their hooks to pry open the skin and insert their mouthpiece called the hypostome. Tick saliva contains antihemostatic molecules, an anti-clotting agent that helps ticks consume blood faster. Some humans are allergic to tick saliva, resulting in a slow-moving rash around the bite site.

All of these factors make ticks excellent hunters.

Territory by tick species

Each species geographic footprint is ever-expanding due to climate change and migration, so it’s important to maintain knowledge of local ticks.

  • Blacklegged (deer) tick: Eastern and upper midwestern United States (woodland)
  • Brown dog tick: All 48 continental US states (grasslands)
  • Lone star tick: Southeastern & eastern United States (woodland)
  • Gulf Coast tick: Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico
  • American dog tick: East of the Rocky Mountains and part of the Pacific coast
  • Rocky Mountain wood tick: Rocky Mountain states and southwestern Canada
  • Western black-legged tick: Pacific coast

What threats do ticks pose to humans?

In the United States, the majority of vector-borne illnesses, or diseases spread through bite, are caused by ticks. This is partly because ticks can infect a host with multiple diseases (bacterial, viral, and parasitic) with just one bite, resulting in increased cases every year. To make matters worse, there are no vaccines available to humans that combat these ailments.

Lyme disease

The most reported tick-borne illness is Lyme disease, which is transmitted by black-legged ticks into the bloodstream. Lyme disease makes up for ⅔ of vector-borne illnesses, tripling over the past couple decades and spreading. Most patients make a full recovery after a course of antibiotics, but a late diagnosis often results in permanent neurological damage mimicking that of multiple sclerosis.

Red meat allergy

You may also recall a new phenomenon that hit the newsstands recently involving the lone star tick. This species can wreak havoc on the immune system. It does so through a sugar molecule injected into the bloodstream called alpha-gal, causing a mild to severe allergic reaction to red meat. The body’s response is often delayed and symptoms may vary.


Ehrlichiosis is a bacterial infection from lone star and deer ticks that mimics the flu. Symptoms include fever, body aches, chills, upset stomach, headache, and rash. Ehrlichiosis can be easily treated with antibiotics, but if treatment is delayed, consequences can be fatal. Late stage symptoms include brain swelling, respiratory and organ failure, excessive bleeding, and death.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is one of the most deadly bacterial tick-borne illnesses in America. Like Ehrlichiosis, RMSF can be treated with antibiotics when treated right away. Symptoms include fever, headache, and upset stomach, and eventually a rash. While RMSF is not a chronic ailment, it can result in permanent damage to limbs, hearing, brain, and nerves. To protect yourself from RMSF, avoid contact with American dog ticks, Mocky wood ticks, and the brown dog tick.


Anaplasmosis is another bacterial disease passed to humans through tick bites. Culprit species include the deer tick and western black-legged tick. Early symptoms are similar to the flu, but extended onset ranges from organ failure to death.


Unlike the other diseases listed here, Babesiosis is a parasitic infection spread by the deer tick that attacks red blood cells. Typical signs of infection are flu-like symptoms, gastrointestinal problems, dark urine, and anemia. Carriers may be asymptomatic as it takes several weeks following exposure for the parasite to become detectable in the blood. Fortunately, a combination of two medications clears up babesiosis in just over a week.


Tularemia is different from other tick-borne illnesses because it’s very easily transmitted to humans through dog ticks, wood ticks, and lone star ticks. This bacteria can enter the skin through a tick bite, but they can also be ingested through untreated water and even be airborne. Never inhale aerosols and dust while working outdoors and avoid touching your face as these are easy entry points. All mammals, including domestic cats and dogs, are susceptible to infection. Cases have even been reported in pet stores.

Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are at the most risk for disease. Members of these groups should seek medical treatment after contact with ticks. Call your healthcare provider immediately if you or a loved one present any symptoms of tick-borne illness. If untreated, any of these infections can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system.

tick on dog

Tick diseases in dogs

Your canine companions are equally susceptible to the same illnesses in addition to Bartonellosis and Hepatozoonosis. The most common tick-borne threat to dogs is Lyme disease, which doesn’t present symptoms for at least two months. If your dog is acting excessively tired or sick (fever, enlarged lymph nodes, or limping) take him/her to the vet for a blood test. Untreated Lyme disease can progress to kidney disease, but it can be prevented.

Other tick-related symptoms to look for in your dog are as follows:

  • fever
  • decreased appetite
  • nosebleeds
  • anemia
  • yellowing of the eyes and skin
  • pain
  • balance issues

All of these tick-borne diseases in dogs are treatable, but they pose a serious health threat without it. Always check your dog for ticks after walks outdoors and if you spot a tick, promptly remove it. You may also want to consider pet-safe deterrent so your dog is less attractive to ticks.

For help preventing tick bites on yourself and loved ones, call Western Exterminator today at 888-444-6138.

Tick bite prevention

Your first line of defense in tick bite prevention is avoiding tall grass and brush, particularly around the edges, as this is where ticks flock for food. Young ticks typically feed on small animals like birds and rodents, but they can also latch onto human ankles. Homeowners can lower tick populations by keeping the landscape groomed and removing unwanted vegetation that ticks may call home.

If you must be outside, consider wearing protective, light-colored garments that cover extremities like long-sleeved shirts, long pants and socks, and hats. Ticks are generally attracted to darker colors, making it harder for humans to spot. When you come inside, immediately put your clothing in the laundry on high heat and take a shower. Then inspect all areas of the body before putting on new clothes to ensure that ticks aren't hiding.

A good second line of defense is adding a tick repellent. Repellents containing 20% - 30% DEET are safe on the skin and will deter ticks within range.

The safest tick bite prevention method is wearing permethrin treated clothing because it kills ticks (and mosquitoes, lice, spiders and 50+ others) on contact. Pesticide-treated clothing is relatively inexpensive and reusable. You can also purchase permethrin treated shoes, bed nets, and camping gear for extended outdoor activities.

Lastly, it’s important to avoid contact with other animals that ticks feed on like rodents, birds, and deer.

For removal of potentially infected pests or around your homes, call Western Exterminator at 888-444-6138.

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