Quick Tips on Preventing Tick-borne Illness: Don’t get bitten! Tick bites are common from February through September, but be especially careful from mid-May to mid-July. Wear light colored clothing (so you can spot them) sprayed with tick repellant (e.g., DEET or Permethrin). Do daily tick checks after being in grassy areas with forest edge. Removing a tick within two days of getting bitten reduces your chance of contracting disease. Using a pair of fine tipped tweezers, grasp the head of the tick as close to your skin as possible, and pull the tick straight out with slow steady pressure. If you are bitten by a tick and experience flu-like symptoms 3-30 days later, see a doctor as soon as possible.
I got Lyme disease in the summer of 2005. Like 20-40% of infected people, I never had the signature “bull’s eye” rash. But about three weeks after being bitten by a deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), I felt as though someone had pummeled every square inch of my body with a rubber mallet, and had a low grade fever (100-102°F) and chills. I wasn’t alone. 16,562 cases of Lyme Disease were reported in CT from 2000-2005, according to Bill Gerrish of the CT Department of Public Health, making it the third most commonly reported disease (after Chlamydia and Gonorrhea). In CT, rates are highest in Windham County. (Source: CT DPH).
Lyme disease was named after the town of Lyme, where a cluster of children with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis was identified in the 1970s. The bacterium that causes Lyme Disease was discovered in 1982. Without treatment, Lyme disease can cause problems like persistent pain in joints or muscles, arthritis, facial palsy and heart palpitations.
Ehrlichiosis (pronounced ur-lick-ee-oh-sis) is also found where Lyme disease is prevalent. I enjoyed a bout in 2006. This tick-borne illness used to be considered rare, but there were 299 confirmed cases in CT from 2000-2005. Symptoms include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle pain, anemia and sometimes a rash (not necessarily at the site of the tick bite). Unlike Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis is considered an acute infection with little potential for chronic long-term consequences. However, the fatality rate is about 2-3%, mostly in the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. There are two kinds of Ehrlichiosis – HME and HGE. Lone-star ticks (Amblyomma americanum), which are not very abundant, transmit the first, and deer ticks are the vector for the second.
Even though you may never have heard of it, there is a third disease transmitted by deer ticks. Babesiosis (pronounced buh-bee-zee-oh-sis) is caused by protozoa similar to those that cause malaria. It is sometimes called Nantucket Fever after it was diagnosed there in the 1970s. 469 cases were reported in CT in 2000-2005. Babesiosis is characterized by fatigue, followed by high fever (100-104.5°F), drenching sweats, chills, headache, nausea, etc. It does not cause a rash, and many cases go unnoticed if there are no, or only mild, symptoms.
When I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I saw lots of dog ticks, but don’t recall ever seeing a deer tick. Dr. Louis Magnarelli, Director of CT Agricultural Experiment Station, who has studied ticks for three decades, thinks the increase in deer ticks is due to the increasing deer population. As farmland in CT has transitioned to forest, deer populations have grown from maybe 20 deer statewide at the end of the 1800’s, to more than 76,000 in the year 2000. Magnarelli has watched deer tick populations increase over time, and has also documented the northward movement of both deer ticks and the diseases they carry. While White-tailed Deer are the preferred host for adult ticks, birds can carry tick larva (babies) or nymphs (tick teenagers), and White-footed Mice are the chief reservoir for the disease-causing bacteria or protozoa.
Relative sizes of ticks in different life stages. The unengorged adult is about the size of a sesame seed. (Cornell drawing)
Deer ticks are itty bitty. Before feeding, nymphs are the size of a poppy seed. Because they are so tiny, they are less likely to be detected. They may also be most efficient at transmitting disease. That is why you need to be extra careful from mid-May through mid-July when nymphs are actively feeding.
According to Dr. Magnarelli, ticks don’t feed like mosquitoes, which are in and out in a few minutes. It takes a tick a couple of hours to find a biting spot, preferring areas like armpits, scalps and groins. Then they need at least 8 hours to embed their mouth parts into your skin. Transmission of disease usually occurs after 2-4 days of feeding. That means that even if it’s bitten you, getting a tick off right away decreases the changes of infection.
If you find an attached tick, don't panic. Very few (1-3%) of tick bites result in Lyme disease. Remove attached ticks using fine tipped tweezers. Do NOT use vaseline or a match. This can cause the tick to "throw up" into your skin. Clear leaf litter away from your house. Keep pets in fenced areas where grass is kept short. Check pets daily to keep ticks out of the house. Put clothes in the dryer for 20-30 minutes to kill hitchhiking ticks. You can continue to enjoy the outdoors while protecting yourself and your family from tick bites. See links below for more information about ticks, the diseases they carry, and how to create a tick-free zone around your home.
TICK-FREE ZONE TIPS
Deer ticks need moist environments to survive; they die quickly where it is dry.
- Clear brush and leaves where ticks live. Research indicates that tick populations are reduced 72-100% when leaf litter is removed.
- Keep wood piles in sunny areas.
- Lay down wood chips or gravel where lawns butt up against wooded areas. This creates a drying barrier.
- Mow the lawn, clear brush, and keep the ground under bird feeders clean.
- Provide a vegetation-free play area. Keep play areas and playground equipment away from from shrubs, bushes, and other vegetation.
- Consider using a chemical control agent. Effective tick control chemicals are available for use by the homeowner, or they can be applied by a professional pest control expert. If you use the household products, be sure to follow the instructions carefully to provide the appropriate amount and distribution of the chemical.
- Use bait boxes to treat rodents. “Bait boxes” that treat wild rodents with acaricide (pesticides that that kill ticks) are now available for home use. Properly used, these boxes have been shown to reduce deer ticks around homes by more than 50%. The treatment is similar to products used to control ticks and fleas on pets and does not harm the rodents. Bait boxes are available from licensed pest control companies in CT, DE, ME, MD, MA, MN, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, VA, and WI.
Drawing of tick removal from CDC.