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Ticks, Ticks and More Ticks: How to protect yourself

Ed Robinson
May 9, 2019

One of a series of articles on the topic of wellness. Click here for more.

Deer or black legged tick

Unless you are new to Maine, you probably know that we have some issues with tick-borne disease here. What you may not know, however, is just how serious the tick problem has become for much of our state. I would love to pass along good news to you in this article, but I’m sorry to say there is not much of that on the tick horizon right now. As Chuck Lubelcyzk of the Maine Medical Center Research Institute said in his April 25 presentation at Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT), tick-borne diseases have become a serious problem in our state.

Ticks have been around for a long time, about 200 million years, based on modern DNA studies. An article published in the journal Nature Communications in late 2017 reported that several ticks have been found in amber with feather fragments from dinosaurs. One of the ticks was engorged, having fed on some host dinosaur before becoming trapped in pitch that later hardened into amber.

Until the last 30 years, ticks were generally not a human health issue in Maine. In recent decades, states like Connecticut suffered rising case reports of Lyme disease. But warming temperatures and the spread of infected ticks into Maine have brought Lyme disease and several other conditions to our region. Now hospitals and physicians are seeing increasing numbers of patients with sometimes serious symptoms from Lyme disease as well as babesiosis, anaplasmosis, Borrelia myamotoi and Powassan encephalitis. Friends of mine who have suffered from these newer diseases have described both acute illness that resulted in emergency room visits and/or long term symptoms that can mimic arthritis or chronic fatigue syndrome.

While there are a number of ticks in Maine that are capable of carrying disease, the primary vector of concern is the black-legged or deer tick, Ixodes scapularis. These tiny arachnids are present in vast numbers in the forests around us, and they are capable of surviving even the most severe winter weather by hiding in leaf litter. Ticks live a two year life cycle during which they move through three stages, from larva to nymph to adult. A tick must attach to a suitable live host and secure a meal of blood to move to each new stage of life. As an adult, all females need a blood meal to lay eggs.

Ticks are incapable of significant migration on their own, but they hitch a ride on birds and small mammals that can deliver ticks into new territories. Popular birds like thrushes and vireos are often found with attached ticks, as are mice, chipmunks and squirrels. Because deer ticks need a fairly high moisture content to survive during dry summer months, they do best along the coast and in river valleys. During the long dry summer of 2018 large numbers of ticks died as their bodies dried out, a very good thing for us but only a short reprieve.

Reported cases of Lyme disease in Maine have gone up 400 percent since 2006 and reached 1,600 cases in 2018, according to Maine CDC. Chuck Lubelcyzk cautioned that there is significant underreporting of Lyme disease in the state and estimated that more than 15,000 people were affected last year. When you consider that 50-60 percent of the black-legged ticks captured in York County tested positive for Lyme disease, it is not surprising that more people are falling ill. Then consider that populations of white-tailed deer, the preferred host for adult ticks seeking a meal, have been rising in southern Maine for many years. Chuck described excess deer populations in southern Maine as a public health issue requiring new strategies in wildlife management.

Only four to five percent of ticks are currently found to be carriers of babesiosis or anaplasmosis. But that infection rate is rising quickly, and Chuck described those diseases as 20 years behind Lyme disease in prevalence. The Powassan virus is currently found in only one to two percent of ticks, a bit of good news since the virus cannot be treated with antibiotics as can the other tick-borne diseases. Two other diseases, carried by the newcomer Lone Star tick, are still rare in our state but bear watching. Ehrlichiosis can cause significant illness in patients, and may trigger serious allergic reactions to red meat, with the limited evidence to date suggesting that it is a life-long condition. Rocky Mountain spotted fever can also cause life threatening illness, especially in those with suppressed immune systems. The Lone Star tick is likely not in Maine, yet.

This article cannot provide you with a complete description of the various ticks and tick-borne illnesses in Maine, but there is extensive information available on the internet, at public libraries and from various health authorities. The priority for each of us is to avoid ticks in our daily lives and to be watchful for tick bites or unusual health symptoms. Deer ticks favor deciduous forest and shrub cover and the leaf litter that develops on the ground. The ticks will climb vegetation as far as knee height. The tick releases its grip on the branch to grab onto the host, and walks to a warm spot on the host’s body so the tick can attach itself and begin feeding.

An obvious strategy is to avoid the kinds of habitat where ticks may be lurking. If hiking on forest trails, walk near the center of the trail and avoid coming into contact with branches or shrubs. It is highly recommended that you wear light colored clothing so that ticks are more easily spotted – this may not be easy, however, since ticks in the nymph stage are roughly the size of a pin head. Nymphs are most active in June and July, while adult ticks are most active in the autumn months, or during winter thaws.

Another key is to make it difficult for ticks to get inside your clothing. Wearing long pants and long sleeved shirts, even in hotter weather, is a good start. Then either tuck your pant legs into your tightly woven socks or purchase lightweight gaiters that cover both your socks and your lower pant legs. I prefer the gaiters so as to keep trail debris from getting in my boots or hiking shoes. The good news is that ticks cannot bite through fabric as can those pesky mosquitos. Tall rubber or leather boots offer good protection in areas of low vegetation.

Tick repellants are always a good idea, so you may spray clothing before a hike with products that contain DEET or Picaridin. These chemicals will repel but not kill ticks. These materials can be used on your skin as you would for mosquitos, with a concentration of DEET at 30–40 percent being sufficient. The disadvantage of DEET is that it may damage rayon, Spandex and plastics. Picaridin does not cause such damage.

Even more effective is to purchase clothing that has been pre-treated with permethrin, or spray your clothing yourself. This chemical kills ticks, instead of merely repelling them. It has been tested for safety to humans, but it is not meant to be sprayed on your skin. Spray your clothing and allow it to dry completely. The treatment should last through several wash and dry cycles (by storing treated clothing in dark plastic bags you may extend the effectiveness of the spray). Factory treated clothing is reported to be effective through 60-70 wash cycles. Twenty-four ounce bottles of permethrin are available at Walmart, LL Bean or Amazon for prices from $15 on up.

The next defense is a good offense – be alert to ticks on yourself and your friends. By brushing the ticks off before they can get inside your clothing or become fully attached to your body, you eliminate the risk of a bite. Remember that only the female tick is trying to attach herself to you, so a walking male tick is no threat beyond being an annoyance. Although dog ticks do not currently carry disease in Maine, they can in Massachusetts and points south. Click here for information about identifying ticks by species and sex.

Check for ticks not only on the trail, but before getting in your car to go home and before you enter your house. After you have been in likely tick habitat, the recommendation is to remove all of your clothing and to place it in the dryer before washing for at least 10 minutes on high temperature. Then take a shower and thoroughly brush or comb your hair to remove any ticks that may be clinging there. Last but not least, use a good mirror or two or have a loved one perform a tick check of your body, especially those nether regions that are dark and warm, perfect tick habitat.

Pet owners need to take special precautions, not only to protect your pet’s health, but also your own. Dogs and cats are susceptible to picking up ticks if they are allowed to run through favorable tick habitat, so it makes sense to limit their range of movement with fencing, leashes, etc. Your veterinarian can recommend medication to kill or repel ticks. Still, it makes sense to carefully check your pets, using brush or comb to work your way through long hair. Check pet bedding regularly to see if ticks may be lurking.

Avoid feeding birds during the summer since you may be attracting species that could deposit ticks in your lawn. Do not feed deer during winter months – not only is this highly discouraged by wildlife biologists and possibly harmful to the deer, but you are perhaps enabling the deer tick/deer connection that increases disease risk. Cut back brushy areas around your property to reduce tick habitat. Some people create buffer zones of wood chips or stones between the yard and adjacent woodlands since such materials can create a tick unfriendly barrier to movement into the lawn.

Despite all your precautions, if you are active outdoors the odds are that you will eventually find a tick attached to your body. It’s important not to panic and try to rip the tick off. Ignore old folk remedies like burning the tick with the head of a match, using nail polish, or pouring alcohol on the tick – you may injure yourself or increase the chances of disease transmission. The best approach is to carefully grasp the tick close to your skin with a pair of tweezers or a specially designed tick spoon and slowly pull upward to remove the tick. Try not to crush the tick because you want to save it in alcohol for examination and testing by your doctor if there is any concern that you may have become infected. Then wash the affected area with soap and water, or rubbing alcohol.

It helps to be able to identify the tick, since larger dog ticks are rarely found to carry human diseases here. Even if you are bitten by a deer tick, it does not mean that you will become ill, particularly if the tick has been attached for only a few hours. Maine’s DHHS recommendation is that you carefully monitor yourself for 30 days after a tick bite for symptoms like a rash, unusual headaches, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, dark urine, fatigue, heart problems or joint pain. While we have all seen photos of the classic bullseye ring around a tick bite, in fact, many people never display that rash even though they have contracted Lyme disease.

Unfortunately it is not uncommon that tick-borne diseases are slow to develop or are misdiagnosed. Blood tests are not always accurate, so a patient may miss the early treatment window that is the best chance of stopping a disease in its tracks. At least doctors in our state are now alert to tick-borne diseases and have better testing methodologies to confirm a suspected diagnosis. Early use of antibiotics can eliminate many of these diseases or at least mitigate their impact.

Some animals are known to eat ticks and may not be susceptible to tick-borne diseases. Examples are chickens, guinea fowl, fire ants, wild turkeys and opossums. Unfortunately, no research studies to date have shown that these species are sufficiently effective at killing ticks that it would lead you to keep such animals around your property.

There are, however, some steps you may consider to lower the risk of encountering disease-bearing ticks on or near your own property. Eliminating habitat that is attractive to mice and other small rodents is important, since you do not want them nesting around your home and outbuildings. Some professionals recommend placing Tick Tubes filled with permethrin treated cotton balls around your property. Mice will carry the cotton balls back to their nests, thereby killing some ticks. Another option is to place bait boxes for small rodents that result in them being coated with tick-killing acaricides (handled only by licensed applicators).

As much as we all enjoy viewing white-tailed deer, their over-abundance near human habitation is a known health issue, as well as having an impact on habitat for other creatures. In the fall and spring, deer shed hundreds of female deer ticks that have consumed blood and are each capable of laying as many as 3,000 eggs. In addition to avoiding deer-attracting plants in our landscape plans, it may be prudent to use deer repellents and fencing, while avoiding feeding the deer. Some people are not in favor of deer hunting but there is no doubt that it is a valuable tool in scientific deer population management.