Heartland Virus

With summer comes loads of outdoor adventures, from camping to hikes to games of ultimate Frisbee out on the field. Leave it to bugs to spoil the fun.

Ticks, those little critters that latch onto and bite humans, are known to spread potentially dangerous pathogens, the most notorious of which is Lyme disease. For the first time, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have isolated Heartland virus, a tick-borne virus responsible for making two men in Missouri severely ill in 2009. 

“Most people are unaware of the tick-borne diseases that occur in their area. For example, Rocky Mountain spotted fever is most common in the southeastern states, not the Rockies, and Lyme disease is most common in the Northeast and Upper Midwest,” said Roger Nasci, Ph.D., chief of the CDC’s Arboviral Diseases Branch, in an interview with Healthline. The best way to find out which tick-borne diseases are present in your area is to contact your local health department or extension office. 

After collecting more than 56,000 ticks in the Missouri area, researchers found that some ticks in the northwestern part of the state carried strains of the Heartland virus.

It’s the first human pathogenic phlebovirus found in the United States, Nasci says. Phleboviruses are a family of related viruses spread by insects that can cause sickness in people. Most exposures occur when people are bitten by mosquitoes, ticks, or sandflies, according to the CDC.

“Because ticks spread diseases other than Heartland virus, it is important for people everywhere to take steps to prevent tick bites,” Nasci said.

Luckily, only a small number of ticks transmit diseases to humans, and while immature ticks may transmit viruses, it’s more likely among mature ticks, says the CDC. Depending on where you are, you can narrow down the types of ticks you should look out for using these CDC maps.

Ticks Be Gone!

Ticks are small parasites that live in wooded areas, forests, brushy fields, and groves. They live by attaching themselves to the skin of warm-blooded animals and sucking their blood. If that isn't creepy enough, ticks are arachnids, relatives of spiders.

These arachnids can range in size, but are typically less than an eighth of an inch long. To spot a tick on you, look for a small brown or black bug with a larger body and smaller head.

To prevent tick bites, Nasci and the CDC recommend wearing bug repellent and long pants and sleeves when going into areas where ticks are known to live, checking for ticks on pets and on your body after every excursion, and showering after being outdoors to both wash away ticks and perform a thorough body check. Ticks prefer dark, warm, moist areas like the waistband of pants, the scalp, the armpits, and anything protected by tight clothing.

Because ticks are so small, sometimes the only way to prevent infection is after you’ve been bitten.

To remove a tick, the CDC says:

  1. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible.
  2. Pull upwards gently, being careful not to break the tick. If the tick breaks, be sure to collect all of the tick.
  3. After removing the tick, place it in an empty, clean plastic container and take it to a doctor or dermatologist who can analyze it for possible diseases. Be sure to clean the bite area, the tweezers, and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. 

If after a couple of days you experience a rash, lightheadedness, tingling in your limbs, or any other odd sensations, have a doctor test you for potential exposure to tick-borne diseases.

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