Modern Gun Deer Season starts across most of the state this Saturday, November 9th, 2019, so let’s talk about ticks. The forest has been a source of myths and rumors throughout the history of mankind. Therefore, it’s only natural that there would be myths and rumors about ticks since they inhabit the forest. But as we get into this topic, you will see that some of the most unbelievable things you’ve heard about ticks might be true:

“I found a tick crawling on me so I know I must have tick fever!” – FALSE

Medicine has a habit of studying the most peculiar details of illness, and the question of how long a tick has to be attached to you to cause tick disease has been examined in detail. There has not been a confirmed case of any tick-borne illness when the tick was attached less than 6 hours. I know that may seem strange when first considered. A person with the flu certainly doesn’t have to cough on you for 6 hours before you catch the flu.  

So why is it different with ticks? Most specialists think that prolonged exposure is necessary because your body’s own immune defenses in the blood (humoral immunity) are actually very good at clearing lesser exposures before they can become a full-blown infection.  Regardless, the take home message is that you are not completely defenseless from tick-borne illness. Get in the habit of bathing as soon as you get out of the woods, examining your skin while doing so.  

“Don’t eat rabbit until after the first hard freeze” – TRUE

Your Grandmother always said this and she was right! One of the leading tick-borne illnesses in Arkansas is Tularemia and rabbits are a natural reservoir for Francisella tularensis (the bacteria that causes tularemia). It is not completely understood how waiting until after the freeze decreases risk of tularemia, but it does. Tularemia is most often contracted through tick bites in Arkansas, but skinning an infected rabbit or eating the meat of an infected rabbit can also transmit illness.

“You can only get Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) in the Rocky Mountains” – FALSE

The germ Rickettsia ricketsii causes RMSF, and it is easily identified in Arkansas ticks. We also have higher yearly incidence of RMSF than Colorado does. Which begs the question:Why don’t we call it Ozark Mountain Spotted Fever? This tick-borne illness is so large and varied, that it could be an entire article by itself. There are many different Rickettsia cousins now known to cause variants of this disease and there are numerous different species of ticks that can carry and transmit them.

“Arkansas is the center of the tick-borne illness universe!” – well, kinda

There is no true “center” of the universe when it comes to tick-borne illness, but a strong argument can be made that we are the tick-borne illness capital. Only two locations on the planet have the highest yearly total cases of Tularemia. Those locations are Iraq and Arkansas.  This is based on CDC tracking of incidence of reportable infections. 

In addition to Tularemia, other tick-borne illnesses were discovered in Arkansas. Erlichiosis was first reported at Fort Chaffee, near the Oklahoma border. The bacteria that causes erlichiosis was even named Erlichia chaffeensis after Fort Chaffee. Our state has been a hotbed of research into tick-borne illness for many years. Biologists comb our state annually with nets to catch ticks and understand which bacteria live in them.

“An Arkansas tick bit me and gave me Lyme disease” – short answer, FALSE – long answer, it’s complicated.

This one gets me grief every time, because there are certainly people in Arkansas whom a doctor has told that they contracted Lyme disease here. To any such person, I promise I am not trying to delegitimize your illness.I do believe that there is possibly an un-named cousin of Lyme disease that might exist in Arkansas ticks.  

But the fact is that in over 20 years of searching for germs in Arkansas ticks, we’ve yet to identify Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease,in them. Borrelia is easily identified in ticks from the northeast United States, mainly in the Appalachian Mountains. If it can easily be identified in other state’s tick populations, but not in ours, the logical conclusion is that you cannot contract it from our ticks. 

The source of this confusion is the Lyme disease screening test itself. It is not a great test. About 20% of the time, that test will run positive even in healthy people who have never been exposed to ticks.  

We have identified other bacteria from the Borrelia family in Arkansas ticks.  Some can cause a reaction identical to the  characteristic rash of Lyme disease. So this is my theory – a person gets bitten by an Arkansas tick. They develop a rash that looks like a target on their back and they don’t feel well. They go to their doctor. He sends blood screening for Lyme disease and the test comes back positive. But what they actually have is a cousin to Lyme disease that has not been studied enough yet to have its own name. 

In closing, bathe after you go to the woods. Remove ticks as soon as possible and you probably have nothing to worry about. If you do find that a tick has been attached to you, there is no need to seek medical attention unless you develop symptoms. After removing the tick, just clean the area with soap and water and apply tribiotic ointment. If you do develop fever or a rash after a tick attachment, go to your doctor and he will know what to do. 

Happy hunting!