Home Infectious Diseases How dangerous are ticks?

How dangerous are ticks?


There’s talk of climate change and rising average temperatures, but it’s not only temperatures that are rising; there are also some more or less friendly animals. One of them, which belongs to the group of the not-so-nice (i.e. less) ones, is the tick. Many people will say: I’ve never seen a tick!

Are we really sure we know how it behaves, what diseases it can carry, and above all, what should we do in the case of tick infection?

Let’s go in order and start by saying that the tick is an arthropod (it’s part of the same class as spiders and scorpions; no doubt about it, a nice kinship!).

They are divided into two main groups; the hard ticks and the soft ticks. The most common and relevant species from a health perspective is the hard tick (as they have a chitinous dorsal shield). They have curious names such as: Lxodes, Hyalomma, Rhipicephalus, and Dermacentor.

Where are they found and how do they attack us?

Usually, they’re present from April to October, and then in the colder months they look for shelter. Unfortunately, with rising temperatures, their period of activity is increasing, as well as the territory in which they can be found; in fact, there are numerous reports from alpine regions that were previously “immune” from this arthropod.

Ticks don’t jump, so we must dispel the myth that they’re described as insects capable of jumping on us — and they can’t even fly because they don’t have wings. They simply lurk at the end of plants, waiting for the passage of a warm-blooded organism, animal or human. In fact, to be more precise, they’re also able to detect the presence of the carbon dioxide emitted from the breath of a living organism.

Once they’ve reached their “victim”, they attack with their mouths, the rostrum, and begin to suck the blood on which they feed. They can continue to suck for up to seven days — at which time, they then detach themselves.

Usually, we don’t notice their bites, as they also introduce a small dose of anaesthetic, which allows them to go mostly unnoticed. This can also be dangerous.

Why is it that the tick can be dangerous?

Certainly not because of their bite, but rather because they’re able to transmit bacteria and viruses; a bit like the protozoon of malaria that’s transmitted by the mosquito of the genus Anopheles.

As we’ve said, animals are also attacked by ticks; in particular rodents, deer, sheep and goats, and they contribute greatly to maintaining the transmission-cycle of the infection.

The most frequently occurring related diseases are the following:

  • Tick Borne Encephalitis (TBE) caused by a virus
  • Lyme disease, caused by the borrelia bacteria
  • Rickettsiosis, transmitted mainly in dogs
  • Recurring tick fever
  • Tularaemia
  • Erhrlichiosis

TBE is the most common in humans and is also quite dangerous. In 2016, there were 2,674 cases in Europe — in Italy, 39 in 2018. Since 2006, there has been a vaccine to treat TBE (also in Italy), but it’s more frequently used in Central and Northern Europe where transmission to humans is much more frequent.

TBE and Lyme Disease

TBE is an acute viral pathology of the central nervous system. In 30% of cases it manifests itself with flu-like symptoms, and in 10-to-20% of cases it leads to central nervous system disorders such as encephalitis, flaccid paralysis (and in rare cases, with a fatal outcome).

Another important disease is Lyme disease. It’s an infection of bacterial origin and is the most widespread vector-borne disease with spread in temperate geographical areas, second only to malaria in the numbers of cases.

The course of the disease leads to the development of neurological disorders characterized by migrating arthralgias, myalgia, meningitis, polyneuritis, skin lymphocytoma, myocarditis, and atrioventricular conduction disorders.

There is a vaccine that was developed in the United States but is not available in Italy because it’s not effective on the gene-species widespread in Europe.

As in all cases of suspected infection, early diagnosis is of critical importance. Recently, an international conference “Infectivological Days 2019” was held at “Luigi Sacco University Hospital” in Milan where tick infections (and especially how to diagnose them) were discussed. A new molecular diagnostics test was presented that can quickly identify the pathogen and consequently allow the Doctor to administer the most appropriate therapy.

It’s useful to know that in all cases, the tick — after a few hours — has anchored itself to the skin of its victim, regurgitates part of the meal; and if the tick is infected, the virus or bacterium passes into the host. Therefore, if you notice the presence of a tick, you must act promptly, extracting it entirely without crushing it, in order to avoid spreading any pathogens.

How to remove ticks

If you need to go walking in risky areas, we suggest that you buy dedicated sprays and repellents; these you can easily find in any pharmacy. And when you get back, check your head and neck, especially the “favorite” tick areas.

If you find a tick on your body, you should remove it as soon as possible. As explained by the Higher Institute of Health, never use alcohol, gasoline, acetone, ammonia, and no heated objects — because they could stimulate regurgitation — dangerous for tick infections.

Use tweezers, easily tested in pharmacies, trying carefully not to crush the tick’s body, and using a rotating movement (like unscrewing a cap). Then, disinfect the skin well, avoiding disinfectants that color the skin, such as iodine.

Avoid touching the tick directly, and possibly burn it after its removal. Also note the date of removal and any signs of infection within the next 30-to-40 days.
And if you’re in any doubt, consult your Doctor, especially in the case of experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned above.

This post is also available in: Italiano



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