(6/2017) Summer is settling in and the sirens of cicadas and other wildlife are in full chorus and heralding the warm days to come. Ticks are part of the package and are undeniably a scourge of summer days. There has been growing concern over ticks and the illnesses they can pass along over
recent years. This year will be no stranger to increasing cases of Lyme Disease if trends and predictions hold. With this in mind, it’s worth delving a little deeper into the world of these parasites to better defend ourselves from unwanted disease.
Ticks are small arachnid parasites that feed on the blood of other living things. Ticks undergo life stages beginning as an egg, larva, nymph, and finally an adult. For each life stage they must eat a blood meal to progress to the next developmental stage. In early stages they generally prefer small animals like mice or birds, and later prefer larger
mammals like deer or occasionally humans.
Generally, ticks are found in hot humid climates. Usually ticks prefer scrubby woodlands or grassy areas. Ticks frequently hang onto the ends of grasses and shrubs with their two hind legs. With their front legs extended they will patiently wait to latch onto an unsuspecting passerby. Once they’ve snagged a ride they’ll begin searching for a warm area
with thin skin to feed. On a person these locations are generally the groin, armpits, behind the ear, or within hair.
Bites are potentially problematic because ticks are vectors for many types of diseases. Disease can only be transmitted when an infected tick bites an animal or person. Ticks evolved a rather ingenious method of avoiding detection. Their saliva contains an anti-clotting numbing agent, which allows the blood to flow freely and you’ll never feel a thing.
During this exchange of fluids a person or animal could be exposed or infected by diseases that are carried by the tick.
The tick species of most concern in Maryland are the Blacklegged and American Dog ticks. The Blacklegged, or Deer Tick, are vectors of Lyme Disease and Powassan (a very serious form of encephalitis). Blacklegged Ticks are very small, about the size of a poppy seed. Lyme can cause fatigue, flu-like symptoms, and joint pain. If caught early it is usually
treatable with few long term side effects. Powassan, while rare, is more serious. This virus presents with flu-like symptoms and can cause long term neurological damage often requiring hospitalization for respiratory issues and to prevent swelling in the brain. The American Dog Tick is a primary carrier of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is
potentially fatal and causes fever, headache, and muscle aches. It is treatable with antibiotics and responds well if caught and treated early on. If you have been bitten or suspect a tick bite and any form of rash appears you should seek medical attention. However, it is important to note that rashes do not always appear.
The Cary Institute of Ecosystem studies is predicting that 2017 will be a particularly bad year for ticks. Throughout the northeast acorn production was above average in the fall of 2016. As a result there has been an increase in mouse populations across the region. In years with abundant mice populations tick populations surge as well. Considering
this, the best offense is a good defense. While unpleasant in warm summer months, best practices include wearing long pants and sleeves, tucking pants into socks, and the use of an effective repellent. Repellents containing at least 20% DEET are effective and safe for human use with no known side effects. If you spend a large amount of time outdoors you can send articles of
clothing (socks, pants, etc.) or buy clothing pretreated with permethrin. Permethrin is a repellant applied to clothing that can last as long as 30 wash cycles and is safe for human use and kills ticks on contact. Lastly, a thorough tick check and regular bathing after being outdoors can reduce tick bite incidents. Generally, it takes between 24 and 36 hours once a tick has
begun feeding to transmit and contract any of the illnesses of concern. The more individuals can do to reduce their risk the less likely they will be to contract any disease.
In the event that a tick is found a few methods of removal generally float around in the conventional wisdom ethos. However, medically speaking there is a best way. With a pair of tweezers grab the tick as close to the skin as possible aiming for the head. Then pull upward steadily. The goal is to remove the entire tick at once. After the tick has been
removed wash the area thoroughly with soap and water and disinfect with rubbing alcohol. Generally, it is unadvised to try to remove the tick with a hot match or chemicals as this can actually make the tick cling tighter. If you’re unsure of what kind of tick may have been found or if it had any diseases ticks can be saved and sent in for testing. The Center for Disease
Control (CDC) provides very detailed maps broken down by state and county levels on the rates and prevalence of Lyme Disease so individuals can check their risk level, as well.
Because of the physical size of ticks and the habitats they live in widespread chemical extermination or treatment wouldn’t be practical or environmentally sound. However, there have been a number of efforts to prevent the spread of Lyme. There are patents for vaccines against Lyme Disease, however there are none commercially available for humans.
Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, is currently trying a different method. Ticks generally pick up Lyme from mice. He has been testing a mouse vaccine that rids mice of the bacteria. Mice are drawn to bait traps with vaccinated food. When the tick feeds on a vaccinated mouse disease won’t be passed along. He found that even though
only 28% of mice in a population were targeted prevalence of infected Blacklegged Ticks dropped by 75% after five years.
It’s important to note that many people who contract Lyme may not even be aware of it all. Lyme is caused by a bacterial infection and can resolve itself, but the CDC estimates that 80% of those who go undiagnosed or untreated can develop long term heart or neurological problems that can last indefinitely. Being proactive and seeking prompt treatment
is key for prevention and recovery. Being active and spending time outdoors with loved ones is one of the things that make the summer months so enjoyable. Get active and opt outside, just be proactive and take measures to ensure adventures are safe.
Read other articles by Tim Iverson