SIKESTON -- Authorities are advising extra precautions when it comes to ticks this year.
"Most indications that I've gotten are that we have a high tick population right now," said Richard Houseman, associate professor of entomology at the University of Missouri.
Among the chief indicators, Houseman said, is the number of complaints "and I've been getting a lot of complaints this year." In addition to the calls, "I've observed it personally from being out in the field," he added.
There have also been more tick-borne disease cases reported by doctors this year, Houseman said.
"There are four main ones: ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tularemia and STARI, which stands for Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness. It's also called 'Lyme-like Disease' -- it has the same symptoms as Lyme Disease. It is caused by a very closely related bacteria," he said. "The number of cases are up. We've seen almost double the number of cases for all of those that we normally see. That's a good indication that there are more ticks out there."
Houseman said as of June 1, there have been 16 cases of ehrlichiosis reported with the yearly average being nine and 54 reported cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, up from an average of 22. There have also been two cases of tularemia and 10 STARI cases.
"These can be life-threatening diseases," he said, "but these diseases can be avoided if we are diligent even after being bitten. They don't have to end in death."
The first precaution to take after being in an area where you might have been exposed to ticks is to do a "tick check" upon leaving that area.
"All of these diseases are only transmitted if the tick has fed for an extended time -- four to six hours," Houseman said. "So if you're checking for ticks within that interval and removing them properly, your chances of being infected go way, way down."
Houseman said ticks find hosts to feed on by "questing," which is sitting on vegetation with their legs out waiting for a host to pass by so they can climb aboard.
"As soon as they get on the host, they will crawl upward. They are going to find a place to settle down where they feel secure," he said, such as between clothing and skin or between folds of skin. "And that's when they are going to settle down and feed."
Houseman said because this can end up being anywhere on the body, it is important to be very thorough and check all areas of the body, not only for adult ticks but also for "seed ticks" which can be as small as the tip of a ballpoint pen.
If a tick is found, the next step is removing it properly.
"Proper removal consists of using forceps or a sturdy pair of tweezers with a thin tip, not a wide flat tip, but a thin tip that can grasp close to the skin," Houseman said.
Use the tool to grab the tick's head right next to the skin surface and then pull slowly but firmly without jerking, he instructed.
"The skin's elasticity will pull the skin away from the tick's mouth part," Houseman said.
He cautioned it is important to remember that you should not grab the tick's body as doing so can squeeze infection from the tick into your body.
Houseman said because a tick's mouth part is a single tube with backward-
facing barbs, once they get that mouth part fully inserted, "then they can't get that mouth part out until they are fully fed. It's cemented in there. Initially they're stuck there."
Folk remedies such as burning matches and vaseline probably only work because the tick's mouth hasn't fully inserted, he said.
"The tweezers will always work," Houseman said.
Once the tick is removed, a local antibiotic should be applied "to minimize risk of secondary infection," he advised.
"Once you've removed the tick, it is a good idea to make a note of the date that tick was removed," Houseman continued. "Monitor your general well being for a week to two weeks."
If there are any symptoms such as feeling sick, a fever or headache, nausea, malaise or "feeling cruddy," achy muscles, rash, vomiting, general discomfort, "then you need to go see the doctor right away," Houseman said. "Tell them you were bitten by a tick. Most doctors are immediately going to prescribe an antibiotic."
A blood test will probably also be sent off to identify any specific diseases.
"The most common treatment is a tetracycline type antibiotic, usually doxycycline," Houseman said. "If it's treated early, that antibiotic is going to take care of it."