Gardeners, fishermen, and hikers all have at least one thing in common this time of year: concerns about ticks.
These little arachnids can be a big problem for people who venture outside. Ticks can be more than just a nuisance as they can also spread disease.
This fact is perhaps best known in Pennsylvania, which has recorded the most cases of Lyme disease from ticks in the country each year since 2011.
Leah Lind, Lyme and tick disease coordinator in the Pennsylvania Office of Epidemiology at the Department of Health, estimates the number of infections in the past year may be lower than 2019 due to the pandemic coronavirus.
She believes people haven’t gone to the doctor or hospital as they normally would because of concerns about the coronavirus. People who may have had symptoms of Lyme disease went undetected because people didn’t seek treatment like they would in normal years.
Early symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, and a rash that can sometimes look like bull’s eye.
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What do you do after a tick bite?
Now is the time of year when tick bites are common. “We’re seeing an increase in (emergency) visits,” Lind said.
She said you don’t have to see a doctor for all tick bites, just when your skin looks infected, red, or swollen.
Where are ticks found?
Nicole Chinnici, director of the Dr. Jane Huffman Wildlife Genetics Institute at East Stroudsburg University, said ticks like moist, cool conditions and that’s when they are prevalent on taller grass.
“Ticks are most active in the morning,” she said of the cooler, wetter part of the day.
When it’s hot and dry, ticks stay under the leaf litter to find moisture. But at this time of year, it is easier to see them in grassy areas and along fields where there is moisture on the foliage. She said a snowy winter protects ticks as the snow helps incubate them in a cold environment.
Researchers typically see a drop in samples in August, when the warmer, drier weather pushes ticks away under the canopy.
You don’t have to be in the woods to be near ticks.
Chinnici said many people get tick bites while walking on their own lawns. She said gardening, leaf cleaning and garden work can put people at risk.
“The highest tick populations are found at the edges of forested areas,” she said.
Ticks infected with Lyme disease are found in these areas because ticks like to use mice as hosts and mice have bacteria. White-legged mice are believed to be important vectors of Lyme disease bacteria. Researchers believe that ticks that feed on mice are very susceptible to infection, making them capable of transmitting Lyme disease to humans.
How to check for ticks?
People who spend time in nature should check in on their return home. Chinnici said to check your body for ticks and take a hot shower within two hours of being outside.
She also recommended brushing your dog who spends time outdoors to remove ticks. Pet owners should check with their veterinarians for different medications that can also be used for tick and flea prevention.
If you find a tick attached to your body, she suggests using tweezers to remove the tick from your skin. She said to avoid using lotions or other items that could make the tick worse, as this could cause it to regurgitate in your body.
“We still want people to go outside,” she said, but they should be aware of ticks.
If you plan to spend time outdoors, Chinnici recommends spraying your shoes and clothing with a permethrin spray available in stores. The chemical kills ticks on contact. She points out that this is only for the clothes, not for the skin. For your skin, you can use insect repellant to reduce the risk of a tick staying on your body.
Lind endorsed the protection efforts and stressed that the key areas are your shoes, socks and pants. “They crawl,” she said of insects found in grassy areas.
She said campers can spray their gear and tents with permethrin to keep ticks away. The spray can remain effective for about six weeks. “It’s good after several washes.”
Efforts to reduce Lyme disease
To reduce the spread of the disease from mice to ticks and humans, research is underway to create technology to vaccinate mice.
Chinnici explained that bait boxes could be placed along fields and edges of woods containing vaccines in the bait food that will be eaten by the mice. The boxes could be placed in state parks and other areas frequented by people as well as on private personal lawns.
Currently, there are tick tubes available to reduce the chances of mice transmitting Lyme disease to ticks. She said the tubes contain cotton balls sprayed with tick-killing permethrin. The mice take the cotton to build nests, and then the ticks that harbor the mice die when the rodents lay eggs in their nests.
Brian Whipkey is the Pennsylvania Outdoors columnist for Gannett. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.