Ticks and the diseases they carry are frightening. Most of us know someone who is suffering from Lyme disease.
In the Shenandoah Valley, two tick species are the predominant concern: lone star ticks and blacklegged ticks. Lone star ticks transmit ehrlichiosis and may transmit other potentially fatal diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Blacklegged ticks (deer ticks) transmit Lyme disease.
Lone star tick biting season lasts about seven months out of each year (from the adult tick biting season from March through June, to the nymph tick biting season from May through August, to the larval tick biting season from July through September).
David Gaines, public health entomologist at the Virginia Department of Health, is in charge of tick surveillance. Here are some things he and his team recommend you can do to go to battle with those bloodsuckers.
First, you need to fill up your arsenal.
- tick repellent for clothing (0.5% permethrin, an insecticide)
- tick repellent for skin (50% DEET for adults, less than 30% DEET for children)
- Repellents containing other active ingredients such as bioUID, oil of lemon eucalyptus, IR3535, picaridin, or 2-undecanone may also be effective
- a good pair of tweezers
- magnifying glass
- shin socks or socks big enough to wrap around your pants
- light-colored pants or jeans
- sticky tape like a pet lint roller
Are you a pet owner? Discuss with your pet’s veterinarian which treatment is best for your fuzzy loved ones.
Preventing tick bites
Recognize when you are in potential tick habitats such as leaf litter, vegetation in forest environments or shady areas. Walk in the center of forest trails, keep grass cut and rake leaves/clear brush in wooded or shady yards.
Wear long pants and shoes with socks and apply repellent containing 0.5% permethrin to shoes, socks and clothing. Do not apply permethrin to skin. Tuck treated pant legs into socks or boots, tuck shirts into pants and wear light-colored clothing so ticks are visible.
Clothing repellents are very effective, Gaines said. He and his team work in heavily-infested tick areas and seldom find ticks on them when they finish up and conduct tick checks.
If wearing shorts or pants that are not tucked into socks, apply repellents to exposed skin such as lower legs and arms at elbows. Use repellant containing up to 50% DEET for adults or less than 30% DEET for children.
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Conduct tick checks
Conduct thorough tick checks and shower with soap after you have been in tick habitat; remove ticks promptly.
Pay close attention to these areas:
- Under the arms
- In and around the ears
- Inside the belly button
- Back of the knees
- In and around hair
- Between the legs and around the waist
Check your clothing inside and out and throw items in the dryer for 20 to 30 minutes, which can kill any ticks. If you spot one, use the sticky side of tape or a pet lint roller to remove them.
Most people see lone star ticks or feel the itch associated with the lone star tick bites, so they often find and remove any attached lone star ticks before they have fed long enough to transmit a disease agent, said Gaines.
Blacklegged tick nymphs are half as big as lone star tick nymphs and move slowly so they are rarely noticed when crawling on a person. Blacklegged tick bites rarely itch, so the ticks may remain attached to the person they have bitten for long enough to transmit whatever disease agent they are carrying.
“In fact, most blacklegged nymphs are able to feed to repletion and drop off their human host without that person ever realizing that they had been bitten by a tick,” said Gaines.
Since blacklegged ticks often bite people without being seen or felt, diseases like Lyme disease, Borrelia miyamotoi disease and anaplasmosis are of significant concern.
What to do when you find a tick
Use a sharp-pointed set of tweezers to grasp the tick firmly, as closely to the head as possible, and remove it with a steady, upward motion (not a sudden pull) until the tick lets go of the skin. Be patient. The mouthpart is covered with sharp barbs, so this may take a minute.
Be careful not to squeeze or rupture the tick’s swollen abdomen. You do not want to leave the tick’s head behind in the skin, or rupture an engorged tick and spill it’s contents onto the bite site.
Disinfect hand and bite site with soap and water; apply antiseptic to the bite site.
It is advisable to identify the tick. If you become sick, tick identification will help your doctor diagnose the illness. Place the tick in clear alcohol (30% or stronger) for preservation so that it can be correctly identified. Mail the specimen to Office of Epidemiology at the Virginia Department of Health in a crush-proof bubble-wrap mailer along with your contact information, collection date and location.
Treatment for tick bites
Doxycycline is the antibiotic drug of choice for treating the most common diseases carried by lone star ticks and blacklegged ticks.
If you can see your doctor within 72 hours of the tick bite and start the antibiotic treatment, you can prevent Lyme disease from taking hold, said Gaines.
“Typically, treatments with doxycycline do not need to last more than a few weeks to cure Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever,” said Gaines.
For all other tick-borne diseases, no preventive treatments are made, and treatment should be prescribed by a doctor only after the disease has been diagnosed, said Gaines.
“Patients who do not recover from their illness after being treated for longer periods than a few weeks with doxycycline are most likely infected or afflicted with something other than one of these tick borne diseases,” said Gaines.
For example, if a patient has ehrlichiosis-like symptoms, and does not respond after three or four days of doxycycline therapy, it could be possible that the patient is suffering from something like the Heartland virus, which is also carried by some lone star ticks. Viral diseases do not respond to doxycycline therapy, he said.
Red meat allergy
The acquired allergy to red meat is something that people get from lone star tick bites. Lone star tick bites are often quite allergenic, causing reactions such as an itchy bite site, and a large red rash or bull’s eye-like rash at the bite site that can sometimes look very much like the bull’s eye rash associated with Lyme disease.
This rash can sometimes be accompanied by a temporary illness known as STARI (STARI is an acronym for Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness). STARI symptoms may cause a fever, headache and body aches, but symptoms typically go away after a few days without any antibiotic treatment. STARI might be caused by an allergic reaction to lone star tick saliva.
“Lone star tick saliva, which is quite allergenic, contains a substance called alpha-gal, and alpha-gal is also something that is found in all red meats, so some people who get lone star tick bites may subsequently develop a temporary allergy to red meats called an Alpha-gal allergy,” said Gaines.
This allergy resolves after a number of weeks in some people, but it may last much longer in others, and because lone star tick bites are so common, some people that are exposed to lone star tick bites several times each year may remain constantly allergic to red meats, he added.
What about the Asian longhorn tick?
Finally, some encouraging news. Two years ago, the Asian longhorn appeared in Virginia and unlike the usual habitats of ticks, this one also liked to hang out in open fields.
After careful investigation, it seems that people are not part of their normal menu, said Gaines.
Although the Asian longhorn tick has been found in 32 counties in Virginia, and Gaines and his team have spent many days conducting tick surveys in some heavily infested regions, and have known people such as farmers that regularly work in these very infested areas, in spite of its abundance in some places, bites of people by this tick do not appear to be common, he said. Therefore, his team has reduced their surveillance activities for this tick until there are indications that it might be a public health risk to people.