Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be a dangerous condition and is spread by ticks. Here’s what you need to know.

Since Rocky Mountain spotted fever is spread by tick bites, here’s what you can do to stay safer outdoors

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is a disease caused by bacteria carried by ticks. The bacteria spreads to humans through a bite from a tick.

What kind of tick causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever?

Ticks in Kentucky include wood ticks and dog ticks. Lyme disease is spread by deer ticks, but is fairly uncommon in Kentucky. Ticks are present year-round, but they are most active from March to September.

“Rocky mountain spotted fever is one of the most common tick-borne illnesses in the state,” said Christina M. Breit, M.D., internal medicine physician with Norton Community Medical Associates. “It’s important to check yourself and your family for ticks after hiking or spending time in wooded or grassy areas.”

How would I catch Rocky Mountain spotted fever?

Recent exposure to ticks in an area where the disease is known to occur puts you at higher risk for contracting RMSF. The disease is unlikely to be transmitted to a person by a tick that has been attached for less than 20 hours. About 1 in 1,000 wood and dog ticks carry the bacteria. Bacteria also can infect people who crush ticks they have removed from skin or from pets with their bare fingers.

Symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever

Many people don’t even realize they have been bitten by a tick.

The rash associated with Rocky Mountain spotted fever can look like red splotches or red pinpoint dots. While almost all patients with RMSF will develop a rash, it often does not appear early in illness, which can make RMSF difficult to diagnose.

If you show any of these symptoms, see a health care provider right away. Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be fatal, even in previously healthy people.

Symptoms by time frame

One to four days after exposure:

  • High fever
  • Severe headache
  • Malaise
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Swelling around eyes and on the back of hands
  • Nausea and vomiting

Five or more days after exposure

  • Altered mental status, coma, cerebral edema
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Necrosis, requiring amputation
  • Multiorgan system damage (central nervous system, renal failure)

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What to do if you find a tick on you

“The easiest and safest way to remove a tick is to use tweezers,” Dr. Breit said.

  1. Clean the area with alcohol.
  2. Using tweezers, grip the tick as close to the head as possible.
  3. Squeeze the tweezers and firmly pull directly up and away from the skin. Avoid pulling the body, which can allow the tick to spit out bacteria into the bite.
  4. Crush the tick with the tweezers and dispose of it.
  5. Disinfect the bite with alcohol and wash your hands.

How to prevent tick bites

“There is no vaccine against tick-borne illnesses,” Dr. Breit said. “But knowing where you could come into contact with ticks can help keep you and your family safer.”

Prevention tips:

  • Know where ticks live. They like grassy, wooded areas with a lot of humidity. Ticks tend to stay low to the ground and catch a ride with a warm-blooded host.
  • Use an Environmental Protection Agency-recommended insect repellent.
  • Treat clothing and gear with permethrin. Permethrin kills ticks and can be used to treat shoes, boots, clothing and camping gear. Clothing treated with 0.5% permethrin will provide lasting protection even after several washings.
  • Check your clothing and gear for ticks when you come home. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets. Remove ticks if you find them.
  • Check your pets for ticks after returning from tick habitats. The most common location for ticks on dogs include the ears, armpits, groin, around the paws and between the toes. Cats are less likely to get ticks, but it can happen.
  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors (preferably within two hours) to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.
  • Check your body for ticks after being outdoors. Check your body and your children’s bodies for ticks. Use a mirror or have someone help you with hard-to-see areas. Ticks can be found anywhere, but are commonly found near the ears, groin, back of the knees, hair, under the arms and around the waist.

Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions with any chemical such as permethrin, and check with your veterinarian about pet-safe products. Norton Healthcare can assess emergency and nonemergency tick bite situations. Call your health care provider if you begin to show symptoms, or visit an immediate care center.

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