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Fight The Bite of Tick-Borne Diseases 

As we enjoy another beautiful spring in Southwestern Virginia, we encourage residents to take steps to protect themselves from ticks. Sometimes tiny and hard to spot, ticks can cause serious medical problems including Lyme disease and alpha-gal food allergy, and some life-threatening diseases such as ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

In recent years we have seen a significant jump in reports of tick-borne diseases. In 2023, the number of reported Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts (RCAHD) Lyme disease cases (91 cases) increased more than 50% over 2022 (58 cases).* Tick-borne diseases can pose a serious public health threat because if left untreated, in some situations they can lead to severe illness requiring hospitalization or even death. We are also seeing increases in acquired red meat allergies caused by ticks, sometimes referred to as “alpha-gal syndrome.”

Although more than 15 different types of ticks have been found in Virginia, the ticks of particular concern are:

  • the black-legged tick, which transmits Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis and more.
  • the Lonestar tick, found in suburban areas at lower elevations such as ours, which transmits ehrlichiosis and alpha-gal syndrome.
  • the American dog tick, which can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

The most important protection strategies are those that prevent you from being bitten in the first place. The best protection is to use an insect repellant that protects against both ticks and mosquitoes, such as those with a concentration of 20-50% DEET. Follow the product label directions for safe use on your skin and on your clothes. Although natural substances such as eucalyptus or lemon oil have repellant qualities, they may not be as effective as DEET.

Pre-treat your shoes and clothes with permethrin spray to provide a long-lasting repellant barrier. Also, tuck your pants into your socks when you are outdoors, and remember to protect your pets: medicated collars, and oral or topical products formulated specially for pets can be very effective.

After outdoor activity, inspect yourself and your children, clothing, and gear for ticks. The running water of a shower can also wash away ticks before they attach.

If you do find a tick, use tweezers to carefully pull the tick straight away from your skin removing the head as well as the body. Do not attempt to cover it in petroleum jelly, nail polish remover, or any other substance. Be careful not to squeeze the tick’s swollen belly. After tick removal, clean the skin and bite area with rubbing alcohol. The longer ticks are attached to the body, the greater chance that they can pass along an illness.

Also, take a careful look at the tick. Each tick species transmits different diseases, so knowing which tick has bitten you gives more insight to diagnose any resulting illness. If you have symptoms such as a bulls-eye rash, fever, or body aches, please call your healthcare professional. Poor health outcomes (hospitalization and death) can be prevented with early recognition and treatment of these diseases.

Rather than dispose of the tick, consider mailing the tick to the Virginia Department of Health for identification. This free service, part of the “Virginia Tick Survey,” provides information about tick species and can offer treatment insight should you become sick. In addition, the survey data is shared with the public at the county level on the VDH website.

Knowing how to protect yourself and your pets can help ensure your enjoyment of outdoor activities throughout the upcoming warmer months. More information about tick-borne diseases and how to participate in the tick survey are available on the VDH website.

*The Lyme disease case definition changed in 2022, resulting in a reclassification of Virginia cases that may not have been captured prior to 2022. 

RCAHD Community Column

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