At Little River Outdoor School, our students spend all of their time outside, engaging with the natural world to learn through practical, hands-on experiences. While there are many benefits to this form of education, it also exposes them to some risks that would not be encountered in a conventional classroom. One of those risks is the possibility of tick bites.
Many times tick bites are harmless, but sometimes they can cause serious diseases. For anyone spending significant amounts of time outdoors, especially in a southeastern state like Virginia, it’s important to learn about the risks posed by ticks and how to mitigate them.
Diseases You Can Get from Tick Bites
Ticks pick up diseases when they feed off of infected animals. They are small, blood-sucking arachnids that grow larger as they take in more blood. If you come into contact with one, they will move to a warm place on your body, such as your armpits, groin, or hair. Once they bite into your skin, they begin to draw blood, and as they do, they transmit diseases they might be carrying into your bloodstream.
The most common diseases from a tick bite in Virginia are:
- Lyme Disease
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Most of the symptoms for any of these diseases will begin within a few days to a few weeks after a tick bite. Even if you don’t have symptoms but know you have had a tick bite, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible. Some common symptoms of a tick bite include:
- Swelling and pain at the site of the bite
- A rash — with Lyme Disease, this rash can look like a bull’s eye around the site of the bite.
- A full-body rash
- A burning feeling at the site of the bite
- Neck stiffness
- Headaches or muscle and joint pain/aches
Many of these symptoms mimic flu-like symptoms, so it is important to see a doctor if you know you have been in an area where there is a large tick population.
Lyme disease is the number one tick-borne illness in Floyd County, and Floyd County has had the highest infection rate in the state. In fact, one of every two adult ticks tested in the New River Valley carries Lyme disease. So, if you begin to have any symptoms, go check in with a doctor immediately.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is the most serious tick-borne illness in the U.S. It causes vomiting, a sudden high fever, headache, abdominal pain, rash, and muscle aches. It also has a signature rash that begins on the wrists and hands and spreads to the torso. If you suspect Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, this needs to be treated as soon as possible.
Ehrlichiosis is a disease that most mimics flu-like symptoms and can have very serious complications if left untreated. These include seizures, major organ failure, or falling into a coma. While a few people have a rash with Ehrlichiosis, most people don’t. Doctors can test you to see which bacteria strain is causing your symptoms for a thorough diagnosis between Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Ehrlichiosis.
Click here to view the Virginia Department of Health’s tick-borne disease flyer.
Recognizing Ticks in Southwest Virginia
It is important to be able to recognize the most common ticks in the New River Valley. Many times, you can receive a fast and accurate diagnosis simply by knowing which tick bite you have. There are three common species of ticks in New River Valley:
- Black-legged tick (also known as a Deer tick)
- American Dog tick
- Lonestar tick
The Black-legged tick is easy to miss, as it is only about the size of a grain of pepper. They pick up Lyme disease by feeding mostly on white-footed mice, and they pick up Ehrlichiosis by feeding on deer. For this reason, they transmit both diseases.
The American Dog tick has a dark, reddish-brown color with white/gray markings and has an oval and flattened shape. They can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
The Lonestar tick is a very aggressive tick. The females are the most likely to bite humans and have a white dot or “lone star” on their back. They can transmit Ehrlichiosis.
Preventing Bites and Disease Transmission
If you are the parent of a child that spends a significant amount of time outside in an area containing ticks, it is important for you to check their body for ticks and put their clothes in the dryer for at least 20 minutes at the end of the day to kill any ticks.
To prevent tick bites from happening and reduce the risk of disease transmission if a bit does occur, here are some helpful tips from the Virginia Department of Health:
Recognize when your child is in a potential tick habitat, such as leaf litter and vegetation in forest environments.
- Walk in the center of forest trails, keep grass cut, and rake leaves/clear brush in wooded/shady yards.
- Have your child wear light-colored clothing so that ticks are visible.
- Tuck your child’s pant legs into socks or boots, tuck shirts into pants, and wear long-sleeved shirts.
- Apply repellents to exposed skin containing less than 30% DEET for children. Repellents containing other active ingredients such as bioUID, oil of lemon eucalyptus, IR3535, picaridin, or 2-undecanone may also be effective.
- Apply repellent containing 0.5% permethrin to your child’s shoes, socks, and clothing. Follow directions carefully, and do not apply this repellant to the skin. Clothing repellents are very effective.
- Conduct thorough tick checks after you pick up your child from school since they have been in a tick habitat; remove ticks promptly.
What to Do if You Find a Tick Bite
If you find a tick on your child, remove it carefully and slowly. Grab it as close to the head as possible with tweezers and pull firmly so that no parts of it get left within your child’s body. Do not crush the tick and avoid touching it with your fingers because even that can spread bacterial infections.
Kill the tick by placing it in rubbing alcohol and then tape it to a notecard so that your doctor is able to test it. Even though tick-borne diseases can be easily treated with antibiotics, diagnosing them can be much harder. However, early recognition and treatment for any tick bite infection decreases the risk of more serious complications.