Photo by Erik Karits, Unsplash.

February 1, 2023

Staying Safe During Tick Season

A turkey hunter in camouflage gear sits behind a trunk of a fallen tree and calls in hopes of attracting a wild turkey. In the background is a lush green forest.
Photo courtesy of the IDNR.

Turkey-hunting season is approaching in Illinois, and there are many important factors to consider when preparing. An often-overlooked concern is the presence of ticks in Illinois woods. Many of the areas where wild turkeys are found contain different types of ticks, which can transmit a variety of diseases. Ticks are commonly found on the various animals which live in these areas, though the animal they are found on may differ depending on species, time of year and specific area in which they are found.

Brushy, wooded areas, or places with long grass, are home to at least 15 different species of ticks. The ticks that humans most commonly encounter are the American dog tick, the blacklegged tick or deer tick, the brown dog tick, the winter tick and the lone-star tick.

Ticks like to stay in warm, but not hot, areas where they can hide, so it’s important to do a very thorough tick check shortly after coming inside. Showering in hot water and washing clothes that were worn outside in hot water (as hot as possible) can help to ensure that you don’t need to worry about live ticks on your clothes after coming inside.

A graphic with photographs of the backlogged tick, lone star tick, American dog tick, brown dog tick, gulf coast tick, and winter tick. Each tick is labelled with its name and sex. A scale of 2mm is in the bottom left corner.
Photos by Emily Struckhoff, INHS Medical Entomology Lab, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Lone-star ticks, do not transmit Lyme disease, one of the most well-known tick-borne illnesses. They can, however, spread other diseases and can cause serious or potentially fatal alpha-gal allergic reactions. Alpha-gal is a type of sugar molecule found in most mammals, and can be ingested through meat (beef, pork, rabbit, lamb or venison) or animal products (gelatin, cow’s milk and other milk products). Alpha-gal is not naturally found in birds, fish, or humans, but when ingested or transmitted (for example, through the bite of a lone star tick) can cause an allergic reaction. These reactions manifest as a rash, nausea and vomiting, heartburn, indigestion, cough, breathing difficulties, a drop in blood pressure, swelling of the face, dizziness or severe stomach pain.

If you experience a reaction after a tick bite, you should immediately contact a healthcare provider as symptoms can be life threatening. If it is determined that you have an alpha-gal allergy, working with an allergist or dietitian can help to reduce your risk of a reaction in everyday life by managing your exposure to animal products which could contain the molecule. Not everyone with an alpha-gal allergy will experience a reaction to every product containing alpha-gal, and the process of determining your reactivity will be different to that of others with an allergy to alpha-gal. Many who experience a reaction notice that the symptoms become more severe over time with continued consumption of foods that may contain alpha-gal. Because ticks feed on mammals which may have alpha-gal, they can transmit alpha-gal through tick bites, which is why it is important to check for tick bites as soon as you come inside. Symptoms may not manifest for 2-6 hours following a tick bite, but once symptoms occur, they can be severe.

While alpha-gal allergies and reactions from tick bites can be severe, they are also uncommon, and not the only concern for tick borne illness. Lone star ticks can also transmit the ‘southern tick-associated rash illness,’ also known as STARI. STARI may present similar symptoms to those of Lyme disease, and many questions as to the cause of the disease and the process of treatment remain unknown. Note if you experience symptoms consistent with STARI or early Lyme symptoms within 30 days of going to an outside area with long grass or brushy wooded areas, or within 30 days of discovering a live tick or tick bite after coming inside. The symptoms to look for include a rash, headache, fever, muscle aches and joint pain, or swollen lymph nodes.

If you discover a live tick on your clothing while performing a tick check, attempt to carefully remove the tick using fine pointed tweezers, being sure to avoid separating the body from the head. Ticks that have not attached to the skin can be placed into a sealed plastic bag and sent it to the INHS medical entomology lab for testing.

If a tick is discovered on your skin, the process is quite similar. Ticks burrow under the skin when feeding, so it is important to remove the tick slowly and gently in order to remove the whole tick. Using clean, fine-pointe tweezers, try to gently grab the tick as close to your skin as possible. Slowly and gently pull the tick upwards. Do not twist or rotate the tick as these motions may cause the tick’s mouthparts to break off and remain under the skin, making them more difficult to remove.

Once the tick has been removed, clean your hands and the area of the tick bite with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. Place the tick into a sealed plastic bag. To prevent the further spread of any disease, or cause another tick bite, do not crush the tick or touch it with your fingers. Once the tick is in the bag, send it to be tested for Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses. Ticks that have been removed after biting, as well as unattached ticks, can be sent here. All ticks will be identified and professionally archived. Contact information on that website will aid in reaching INHS medical entomology lab if it is determined at a later point that testing a tick would be helpful.

It is preferable to keep ticks alive once they have been found on the clothes or on the skin. Put live ticks in a tight, double-sealed plastic bag or container and send it in for testing.

Staying safe this turkey-hunting season is a vital part of making the experience safe and enjoyable for everyone. While these precautions may take a little more of your time once you get home, it’s worth it to ensure that going outside remains a pleasant activity for everyone involved.

Zoe Angelo’s passion for Lyme disease awareness began by seeing a family member deal with the impacts of undiagnosed Lyme disease. In addition to being a proud member of the Illinois Lyme team, she is a junior at Academy High in Champaign, and loves all things science, artwork and Star Wars.

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Submit a question for the author

Question: Hi Zoe, Very nice article! Folks can send me both unattached AND attached ticks. While I won’t necessarily test every single tick (in most cases, acute testing isn’t helpful), I will identify and professionally archive every tick. And, if it’s determined at a later point that testing a tick would be helpful, folks can always follow-up with me about it. We’ve updated the webpage you linked to in order to reflect this change to now accepting attached ticks and testing some of them. This change happened very recently due to new funding from IDNR/Illinois Lyme Association). Here it is: Thank you! Holly