by Amy Kahn, RBA President
Doing bird surveys last November and then again in early February I found Blacklegged ticks (deer ticks) upon doing my now mandatory nightly tick checks. But the only time I got bitten was last fall gardening in my own backyard when I wasn’t checking nightly. Now I wear repellent and tick check every time I go off pavement.
Lyme disease — which causes flu-like symptoms and arthritis — is spread by blacklegged ticks. They can be as small a poppy seed. And they like to hang out in the nooks and crannies of the human body. “That’s the scalp, behind the ears, the armpits and in the groin area,” says epidemiologist Kiersten Kugeler at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On the East Coast, most people catch Lyme right around their homes, Kugeler says, not just when they’re hiking or camping. “People may be putting themselves at risk every day without knowing it.” So if you live in places with Lyme, she recommends checking your body for ticks every day. Make it part of your daily routine.
You can decrease your risk of getting Lyme disease with some simple precautions: Cover up. When in wooded or grassy areas, wear shoes, long pants tucked into your socks, a long-sleeved shirt, a hat and gloves. Repellents containing 20% or more DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) can be applied to the skin and can protect up to several hours. Always follow product instructions! Parents should apply repellents to their children. Do not get repellent on children’s hands or in their eyes or mouth. Products that contain permethrin can be used to treat boots, clothing, and camping gear. Treated items can stay protected through several washings. Locally made Lavender Moon’s “Tick Me Off” herbal repellent also works for people who cannot use DEET.
Rick Ostfeld, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., and Felicia Keesing, an ecologist at Bard College, have been studying Lyme disease and ways to stop it for more than 20 years. The couple has come up with a way to predict how bad a Lyme season will be a full year in advance. They can predict how many cases there will be a year in advance by looking at one key measurement: Count the mice the year before.
The Hudson River Valley experienced a mouse plague during the summer of 2016. The critters were everywhere. “We’re anticipating 2017 to be a particularly risky year for Lyme,” Ostfeld says. The explanation is simple: Mice are highly efficient transmitters of Lyme. They infect up to 95 percent of ticks that feed on them. Mice are responsible for infecting the majority of ticks carrying Lyme in the Northeast. And ticks love mice. “An individual mouse might have 50, 60, even 100 ticks covering its ears and face,” Ostfeld says.
So that mouse plague last year means there is going to be a Lyme plague this year. “Yep. I’m sorry to say that’s the scenario we’re expecting,” Ostfeld says.
The reasons for this Lyme explosion are many, Ostfeld says. Climate change, warmer winters, is part of it. The surge in deer — which feed ticks and spread them around — has also been a factor.
“In the Northeast, most people catch Lyme around their homes,” says the CDC’s Kiersten Kugeler. “People out gardening. People playing in their backyard. Mowing the lawn.”
Perform Daily Tick Checks
Check your body for ticks after being outdoors, even in your own yard. Search your entire body for ticks. Use a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body and remove any tick you find. Take special care to check these parts of your body and your child’s body for ticks:
Under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, back of the knees, in and around all head and body hair ( I found mine at the hair line), between the legs, around the waist.
Check your clothing and pets for ticks because they may carry ticks into the house. Check clothes and pets carefully and remove any ticks that are found. Place clothes into a dryer on high heat to kill ticks.
If you do find a tick, get it off as quickly as possible. The longer an infected tick stays on your skin, the greater the chance it will pass the Lyme bacteria on to you. Generally, it takes about 24 hours for the tick to infect a person after it starts biting.
Then be on the lookout for Lyme symptoms — like a red rash or a fever. It anything crops up, go see a doctor immediately. Don’t wait: The earlier you get treated, the better chance you’ll have for a full recovery.
And When You Find a Tick:
1. Don’t panic, says Dr. Brian Fallon, who directs the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research at Columbia University Medical Center.
2. Get out the tweezers. “Very carefully, go under the head of the tick with the tweezers and just pull out the mouth of the tick, which is embedded in the skin,” Fallon says.
“What you don’t want to do is squeeze the body of the tick,” he says. “That will cause the tick to spew all of its stomach contents into the skin, and you’ll be more likely acquire whatever infection that tick was carrying.”
Also, don’t put Vaseline or smoke from a cigarette or [a] match on it,” Fallon says. “Just use tweezers.”
3. Check the Lyme map
Monroe, and Ontario counties are seeing increased numbers of ticks partially due to having two mild winters. We also had the mouse explosion last summer so expect this year to be a high risk one for Lyme disease.
4. Save that tick. If there’s a possibility you picked up the tick in an area where Lyme is common, Fallon says, you might want to hold onto the critter so a lab can test it for Lyme.
“Put the tick into a baggie,” he says. “The tick doesn’t even need to stay alive for a lab to see if it carried Lyme.” You can also take a picture of the tick and send it to the TickEncounter Resource Center. Scientists there will help identify the tick and tell you the chance it could have Lyme.
5. Monitor your health. So now comes the big decision: Should you go see a doctor? That depends on your symptoms.
Be on the look-out for any red rash, Fallon says. It doesn’t have to be shaped like a target or bull’s eye. “In fact, 80 percent of the time, the rash with Lyme isn’t shaped like that. It’s just red and expanding.” “If you do develop an expanding rash, a fever or flu-like symptoms, don’t wait. Go see a doctor,” Fallon says. The earlier you start taking antibiotics the more likely you will recover fully and not have any lingering problems. And while some symptoms persist even when people get treated, “The good news with Lyme is the majority of people who get treatment early do very well,” he says.
Sources: CDC, NPR, NYS Health Dept. https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/lyme/