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It’s tick season: Be prepared

By Ed Robinson

Thanks to a mild winter, it looks like mud season might pass with only a modicum of mud compared to some years. Yet that mild winter probably means a large population of ticks lurking in the forest and hoping to latch onto us for a meal. However, there is much you can do to make life miserable for the ticks!

Photo by Steven Ellingson, iStock

I’ve had several people tell me that they now avoid going outside or have significantly reduced their activities outdoors due to concern over tick-borne illness. This is unfortunate because there is so much to be gained by being active in the beautiful natural habitats that Maine offers. If you take precautions and check your body for ticks when you get home, your risk of illness is greatly reduced.

Let’s review some basic tips to help in the battle against ticks.

Before you go out

  • It is suggested that you wear light-colored clothing since it is easier to spot ticks for removal.
  • The most basic defense is to tuck your pant legs into your socks, or to wear gaiters that prevent ticks from getting under your pants. Special tick repelling gaiters such as Lymeez mesh gaiters are available for about $30 per pair.
  • The standard repellents for use against ticks have been permethrin, DEET and picardine. If used according to the directions, these are effective and safe for humans. Note that some of these products are meant to be applied to clothing in advance of wearing them, but not applied directly to your skin.
  • Some people prefer to avoid chemicals so they use natural or organic oils. Examples are neem oil, cedar wood extract or essential oils such as lavender, rose geranium, lemongrass or tea tree. Note that most essential oils must be diluted before use and only lavender oil is gentle enough to be applied directly to your skin. A popular spray is Green Mountain Tick Repellent, which you can find for around $15.

While you’re out there

  • When you are outdoors, make it a habit to check yourself, your children and your companions for ticks. The sooner ticks can be spotted and removed, the better, since it harder to find them when they crawl into the dark crevices of our bodies. Remember, they cannot transmit disease-causing bacteria to us unless they have been attached for at least 24 hours.

After you get home

  • Once a day, do a more detailed tick check on every part of your body. It is helpful to take a thorough shower with careful toweling off.
  • Put outdoor clothing in the dryer at a high temperature setting for at least 10 minutes to kill ticks.
  • Check your furniture, carpets, bedding and car seats for ticks.
  • Pets need to be checked carefully, both to protect their health and to avoid ticks being brought in the house after exercise. Consult with your veterinarian about the best way to protect your pets with collars, liquids, pills, etc.

In case you find a tick

  • Keep a good tick removal tool handy in your pack, your car or at least at home and follow the directions on how to use it if you find a tick attached to your body. Pull gently and firmly away from your body to remove the tick intact.
  • If you remove a tick, save it in a small plastic or glass container for possible examination by your physician in the event you develop symptoms of illness. Adding rubbing alcohol will preserve the tick.
  • Clean the site of the tick bite with soap and hot water or a solution of hydrogen peroxide, adding antibiotic salve to help in healing.
  • Keep an eye on the wound for a couple of weeks to see if you develop a rash or redness around the wound. You should call your physician with any concerns or questions.
  • Particularly if you think the tick was embedded for 24 hours or longer, you can choose to send the tick out for testing. The Tick Lab at the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Service can be contacted at tickID@maine.edu. The cost for a tick test is $15 and the response time is very good. Despite offices being closed currently, UMaine Extension is operating, staff is working remotely and ticks can still be submitted to the lab.

The Tick Lab issued its first annual report for tick-borne infections during 2019. Compared to the dry conditions we experienced in much of 2017-2018, the weather during the spring and summer of 2019 was damp, thereby creating excellent conditions for tick activity and survival.

Health officials reported a record 2,079 cases of Lyme disease during 2019, 12 percent higher than the previous record year of 2017. Of the 2,697 ticks submitted to the Tick Lab last year, more than 2,000 of them were the black-legged or deer tick that carries the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Forty percent of the deer ticks carried Lyme disease, while eight percent carried anaplasmosis and six percent carried babesiosis. The latter two diseases are rising in incidence, with 685 cases of anaplasmosis reported. It is important to note that while Lyme disease causes hospital admissions only five percent of the time, anaplasmosis can put 25 percent of patients in the hospital with serious illness.

The Tick Lab’s report makes the point that it is possible to encounter ticks almost anywhere in their habitats, not just in thick brush or forest areas. More than 20 percent of the ticks submitted for testing came from people engaged in gardening, while 15 percent were from walkers and hikers. Loggers submitted fewer than one percent of the ticks studied. Surprisingly, only a few ticks were submitted from people who had been camping, cycling or fishing.

It is important to note that tick populations continue to spread, most likely related to wildlife carriers expanding their territories in a warming climate. The presence of tick-borne illnesses is also expanding so we must be on our guard to stay healthy. There is a great deal of research underway to understand tick-borne illness, with two potential vaccines in clinical testing in Europe.

For more information, take a look at the detailed article I wrote last year on the subject.

April 2020