What you should know about the tick-borne Heartland virus
Spring and summer mean you’ll be spending more time enjoying the outdoors. Activities like gardening, hiking, camping, and taking the dog for a walk in the park are great ways to get some exercise and manage stress. But there are some potential health risks that come with spending more time outside. The number of cases of tick-borne diseases usually rises in the spring and summer. While Lyme disease is the best known tick-borne disease, there are a number of other diseases that are spread by tick bites that can cause serious illnesses in humans.
The area affected by the lesser known Heartland virus, identified in 2009, has begun to expand. Transmitted by the lone star tick, cases of the Heartland virus were reported by the CDC in 2021 (the most recent year statistics are available) in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. The range of the lone star tick, however, reaches much further, with ticks being found as far north as Maine.
Heartland virus symptoms can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, diarrhea, nausea, headache, and muscle and joint pain. Some patients have also had low white blood cell and platelet counts and higher than normal liver enzymes. According to the CDC, some patients with Heartland virus have required hospitalization. Most recovered with supportive care to treat symptoms (there is no treatment for the virus to date), but a few older patients with chronic health conditions died. To date, only about 50 cases of Heartland virus have been reported.
How to prevent Heartland virus and other tick-borne illnesses
While the number of Heartland virus cases is currently low, it’s likely to increase over time as more healthcare providers become familiar with the virus and the number of people bitten by infected lone star ticks grows. The key to preventing Heartland virus, as well as all other tick-borne diseases including Lyme disease, Powassan disease, and tularemia, is to take steps to lower your risk of being bitten by a tick.
These strategies can help decrease your risk:
- Manage ticks’ habitats. Areas with a lot of grass, brush, and woods are common tick habitats. That includes your own backyard or neighborhood park or playground. On your own property, keep grass well cropped and clear brush. You can create a border around the areas of your yard where you relax or your children play by laying down a 3-foot-wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between grassy and wooded areas and the areas your family uses.
- Wear protective clothing when you’re outside. If you’ll be gardening, hiking, or spending time in a grassy or wooded area, you can lower your risk of tick bites by wearing clothes that keep you well covered. That includes long sleeves, long pants tucked into socks, closed shoes, and hat to protect your scalp. Lighter colored clothes make it easier to spot any ticks that get on you.
- Consider treating your clothes and gear to repel ticks. Especially if you’re a frequent hiker or camper, you may want to treat your clothes, footwear, backpacks, tents, and other gear with the insect repellant permethrin. Carefully follow all instructions for this potent insect repellant. There are also insect repellants that are safe for use on your skin, such as DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone. The Environmental Protection Agency has an online tool to help you choose the most appropriate repellant. Before using an insect repellant or repellant treated clothing on children, ask your pediatrician if it’s safe.
- Do a tick check on yourself and your pets after time outdoors. After you’ve been outside, carefully check your clothes, yourself, your children, and pets for ticks. On people, common spots for ticks include your hair and hairline, under your arms, the back of your knees, your belly button, the ears and surrounding area, the waist, and between your legs. Wash clothes immediately in hot water or run them through the dryer on a hot setting to kill any ticks. Look through your pet’s fur. It may also be helpful to brush your pet before coming into the house.
If you do find a tick on yourself or a family member, call your healthcare provider and ask how best to remove it and whether any assessment is needed.
Photo: James Gathany/CDC