Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the June 2012 issue of Utility Contractor.
I was a little careless while working in my yard a couple of weeks ago. I am well aware that tick bites can be dangerous, and I generally use insect repellent when outside in wooded areas. But the next night, I found a tick attached to my side. These little suckers are scary because they can carry Lyme disease and other pathogens that cause serious illness. The tick is just looking for a blood cocktail. But it can transmit disease if it is not removed quickly, generally within 24 hours.
I had to make an appointment with my doctor a few days later — not because I had observed any symptoms, but because I did not get all of the tick out of my skin. The physician’s assistant had to use a scalpel to get it all. Then he gave me a prescription for antibiotics to take twice a day for three weeks. And guess what? Two more latched onto me the next week. This time I was just walking around my lawn to see how the new grass seed was growing. I got them out within 24 hours and because I was still on antibiotics, I trust I will not contract any disease.
This is a good time to educate your workers about ticks. Ticks are most active in the spring, but can also be found in the summer and fall. Ticks carry and spread many serious, and potentially life threatening, illnesses. The most commonly known is Lyme disease. Ticks are efficient carriers of disease because they attach firmly when sucking blood, feed slowly and can go unnoticed. They take several days to complete feeding before dropping off the host.
Many environments support a variety of tick species, but they are most often found in — or near — wooded areas. Workers are often exposed during site clearing operations and when clearing brush. They may come in contact with ticks just by walking through infested areas or by brushing against infested vegetation, such as leafy trees, shrubs or grass.
Ticks and the diseases associated with them vary in different parts of the country. Some of the diseases that workers can contract from a tick bite are: babesiosis; Colorado tick fever; ehrlichiosis; Rocky Mountain spotted fever; Southern tick-associated rash illness; tick-borne relapsing fever; and tularemia. Any one of these can create a serious health problem.
How Ticks Find Their Hosts
Ticks find their hosts by detecting animals’ breath and body odors, or by sensing body heat, moisture or vibrations. Some species even recognize a shadow. Ticks can’t fly or jump, but many tick species find their prey by “questing.” They identify well-used paths and then pick a place to wait for a host. Resting on the tips of grasses and shrubs by their third and fourth pair of legs, they hold their first pair of legs outstretched. When a “victim” brushes the spot, it climbs aboard. Some ticks will attach quickly, while others will wander to places like the ear or other areas where the skin is thinner.
Preventing Tick Bites and Disease
Employees should be advised to take the following precautions when working in areas where ticks may be hiding:
- Know where to expect ticks. Ticks live in moist and humid environments, particularly in or near wooded or grassy areas.
- Wear protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts, long trousers, boots and a hat. Light-colored clothing makes ticks easier to detect. Tuck trouser cuffs in socks or boots. Tape the area where pants overlap boots or socks so ticks cannot crawl under clothing. Some small ticks can actually crawl through socks.
- Apply insect repellent containing 20 percent or more DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on exposed skin for protection that lasts up to several hours. Apply sparingly. Do not spray directly onto the face; spray the repellent onto hands and then apply to face. Avoid sensitive areas like the eyes, mouth and nasal membranes. Be sure to wash treated skin after coming in from working outdoors. Use products that contain permethrin to treat clothes (especially pants, socks and shoes), but not skin. Always follow label directions; do not misuse or overuse repellents.
- Walk in the center of trails trying not to brush against vegetation. Avoid sitting on the ground.
- Check yourself for ticks every couple of hours when working in wooded or grassy areas. Most ticks seldom attach quickly and rarely transmit disease organisms until they have been attached for four or more hours. Perform daily tick checks of your body after working in potentially tick-infested areas. Use a portable mirror to check areas you cannot see, such as your back, neck, private areas, etc.
- Bathe or shower as soon as possible after work (preferably within two hours) to more easily find and wash off ticks that are crawling on or attached to you.
- If ticks are not attached and crawling on your body or on your clothing, the sticky side of a piece of tape can remove them.
- Remove any tick promptly. The mouth-parts of a tick are barbed and may remain embedded, leading to infection if not removed promptly. Do not burn the tick with a match or cover it with petroleum jelly, nail polish, soap or other substance it may find objectionable. Although some of these methods may encourage the tick to detach itself from the skin, experts point out that these methods may also cause the tick to release additional saliva or regurgitate their gut contents, which increases the chances of it transmitting disease.
- Wash the bite area and your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Apply an antiseptic to the bite.
- If you experience a rash that looks like a bull’s-eye (or a rash anywhere on your body) and/or an unexplained illness accompanied by fever following a tick bite, you should consult your physician as soon as possible. Diseases carried by ticks can be treated with antibiotics, but early diagnosis and treatment are very important.
How to Remove a Tick
If you find a tick attached to your skin, don’t panic. There are several tick removal tools on the market, but a plain set of fine-tipped tweezers will do it. With the help of my wife, I removed the first tick with pointed tweezers, but it did not work well. A piece of the mouth broke off and stayed in my side. We purchased a tick removal tool to add to our first aid kit and it quickly and effectively removed the second and third tick from my leg. You can search “tick removal tool” on the Internet to find options for your first aid kit.
To remove a tick the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. Don’t squeeze the tick’s body!
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone, apply antiseptic and let the skin heal.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine solution or soap and water. Apply antiseptic.
The CDC also recommends avoiding folklore remedies.
Of the many different tick species throughout the world, only a select few bite and transmit disease to humans. Yet when they do, the consequences are serious. The best way to prevent tick-borne illnesses is to avoid tick bites, which includes avoiding tick-infested areas, when possible. If, however, your employees must work in wooded areas or areas with tall grass and weeds, educate them about the precautions they can take to prevent tick bites, what to do if they find a tick attached to their skin, and when to seek medical attention.
For more information about ticks, visit the CDC’s website at www.cdc.gov/ticks or the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine website at www.nlm.nih.gov and search for ticks.
George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.