Ticks and the diseases they spread to humans are advancing across the U.S. Along with the commonly known Lyme disease, there are a number of other prevalent tick-borne diseases we should all keep in mind.
“People need to think about tick-borne infections in a little broader context than just Lyme,” said Ruth Kriz, a Washington, D.C.-based nurse practitioner who has spent 30 years studying these illnesses. “Ticks carry a lot of infections.”
Along with Lyme disease, common infections in the mid-Atlantic states, Kriz said, are Rickettsia, which causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Babesia, a malaria-like infection. Southern states have a high incidence of Ehrlichia and Anaplasma, which commonly cause fever, headaches and muscle aches, she said.
How bad are the tick troubles this year? Even the U.S. Centers of Disease Control in Atlanta, which tracks the irksome arachnids, is quite cautious about making predictions.“Every year is a bad year,” CDC spokesperson Kate Fowlie said. “There is no sure way to predict how bad a season will be. Ticks that spread disease to people can have up to 2- to 3-year life cycles, and many factors can affect their numbers, including temperature, rainfall, humidity and the amount of available hosts for the ticks to feed on.”
One of the most notorious hosts is the white-footed mouse, which is prevalent in the northeastern U.S. but resides in more than 40 different states. The mice population boomed in recent years in the Northeast, according to scientists, giving ticks more opportunities to feed on the mice’s blood and acquire dangerous infections.
“People need to think about tick-borne infections in a little broader context than just Lyme. Ticks carry a lot of infections.”
The CDC reports that nearly 95 percent of Lyme disease cases occur in 14 states – from Maine to Virginia but also including Wisconsin and Minnesota. But the range of many ticks is expanding.
Keith Clay, a distinguished professor in the Indiana University department of biology in Bloomington, Ind., noted in a long-term study published in 2015 that the migration patterns of ticks had rapidly changed. “Just in the past 10 years, we’re seeing things shift considerably,” Clay said. “You used to never see Lone Star ticks in Indiana; now they’re very common. In 10 years, we’re likely to see the Gulf Coast tick here, too.”
In order to keep ticks and their infections at bay this year, people can follow these 10 tips.
1. Know your enemy
Seven different tick species in the contiguous U.S. bite and transmit disease to humans, according to the CDC, including the Brown dog tick, American dog tick, Blacklegged tick and Lone Star tick. Learn what ticks are common in your area by visiting a resource such as the CDC’s website on ticks and their geographic locations.
2. Stay on track
When walking in nature, stay on well-worn paths and don’t stray into areas that haven’t been cleared. “The ticks like to live in the knee-high grasses that people trudge through to get to the river bank or to a pretty place for a picnic,” Kriz said.
3. Treat your clothing
An odorless spray called permethrin is one of the most common clothing treatments to repel ticks, according to Kriz. Outdoor enthusiasts can spray permethrin on shoes and clothing for an added layer of protection. Pretreated permethrin clothing also can be purchased from a number of online retailers. The University of Rhode Island’s online TickEncounter Resource Center includes a permethrin fact sheet.
4. Depend on DEET
To protect exposed skin, the CDC recommends a repellant that contains 20 percent or more DEET, the most common active ingredient in insect repellants. The protection should last for several hours in the outdoors.
5. Protect your yard
Many homeowners use the natural insecticide IC3 to keep ticks away in their yards. Its active ingredients include rosemary oil and peppermint oil. “I spray it every spring, and I’ve yet to find a tick on my dog,” Kriz said.
6. Forget the birds
Eliminating the threat of ticks also should mean avoiding the use of bird feeders in your yard. The seeds in bird feed often can spill on the ground. “Rodents think this is a great place to come, and they’ll bring the ticks with them,” Kriz said.
7. Safeguard your property
When dividing parcels of land into less than five acres, owners unknowingly invite trouble. “You destroy the natural habitat of the predators for the white-footed mouse, such as snakes and foxes,” Kriz said.
To combat this issue, land owners often place permethrin-treated cotton balls in small tubes around their property. Particularly in the fall, mice will transport the cotton balls back to their nests. The result is that ticks won’t multiply.
8. Check for ticks
These crafty creatures can ride along with mice, birds and deer and also are transported into homes on clothing, gear and pets. The CDC says a thorough examination for ticks should include all clothing, pets and packs, though they can be difficult to spot. “The nymph stage of a tick is the size of a freckle,” Kriz said. “It’s easy to miss. It’s a pencil point.”
9. Wash away concerns
Bathing or showering as soon as possible after outdoor activities is a quick way to find and remove crawling ticks, according to Fowlie.
10. Dry your clothes
Immediately after coming indoors, the CDC suggests tumble drying clothes on high heat in a dryer for 10 minutes to kill ticks on any dry clothing. If clothes are damp, additional time can be added. Clothes should be warm and completely dry.
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