Every summer, our family spends time vacationing in New England, either visiting my uncle in Connecticut or friends in Maine. Because of the prevalence of Lyme disease in these and other northeastern states, part of our vacation packing routine includes gathering up insect repellent, white socks and long pants to keep ticks at bay. Back at home, we’re always on the lookout for the strange circular red rash that often signals Lyme disease.
Until recently for Ohioans, this often-debilitating disease was associated with travel outside the state to areas with high populations of the blacklegged tick and the accompanying bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Now, the blacklegged tick has been found in 52 of Ohio’s 88 counties, including Summit, Cuyahoga, Stark and Wayne. Experts surveyed deer harvested in the 2011 hunting season, finding more than 1,800 blacklegged ticks last year, compared to 29 found the previous year.
The blacklegged tick was first found in Ohio in 1989. Once referred to as the deer tick, the blacklegged tick transmits the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, a disease considered the most common tick-borne disease in North America.
Lyme disease is named after the town in Connecticut where an outbreak was identified in 1975, following a mysterious incidence of arthritis among the town’s residents. The disease causes early symptoms including headache, fever, joint pain and the characteristic circular red rash that often occurs 3 to 30 days after infection. Left untreated, Lyme disease can cause arthritis, nervous system abnormalities and heart problems. When diagnosed early, the disease is easily treated with antibiotics.
Dr. Glen Needham is an associate professor of entomology with Ohio State University who studies ticks and worked with state officials on the Ohio survey. Needham calls the spike in blacklegged tick populations a “red flag,” but notes that the number of Lyme disease cases in the state hasn’t yet shown a similar spike.
According to Needham, the blacklegged tick differs from the American dog tick in its year-round activity. Because this tick can remain active even in cold winter temperatures, it poses a year-round threat to people who enjoy the outdoors. The most dangerous time is late spring through the summer when tiny nymphs are active.
The tick completes its life cycle on large animals, especially deer, as well as birds, squirrels and small mammals such as mice, so gardeners who contend with deer in the garden in counties where the tick has been identified should take precautions to protect themselves. Wooded, brushy areas are likely tick habitat.
Needham advises taking these measures to prevent ticks when outdoors:
• Tuck pant legs into socks to prevent ticks from crawling up pant legs.
• Wear light colored clothing to make ticks easier to see.
• Treat clothing worn for hiking or hunting, including shoes and boots, with a tick repellent containing permethrin. This product is for clothing only, and should not be applied to skin. Treated clothing will repel ticks for 6 weeks if unwashed, or will remain effective through six wash cycles. Find this product at stores or through catalogs that sell hunting and outdoor gear.
• Cats, dogs and horses should be inspected regularly for embedded ticks.
• Wear boots or shoes with closed toes in tick habitat, not sandals, flip-flops or Crocs.
• Clothing worn in potentially infested areas should be washed and dried at high temperatures to kill possible hitchhikers.
As for removing an embedded tick, Needham has studied folk remedies, including matches, fingernail polish, Vaseline and others sometimes suggested to remove ticks. His studies show that none of these folk methods is effective, and several can be dangerous.
Embedded ticks should be removed by using tweezers to pull the tick straight back, firmly but gently so as not to crush the tick’s body. If tweezers aren’t available, protect bare fingers with a baby wipe, using a similar firm, gentle motion.
Ohio residents should place ticks, that are not dog ticks, in a sealed container with moistened paper (to keep the tick from becoming brittle) and send them to: Tick Identification, Zoonotic Disease Program, 8955 E. Main St., Reynoldsburg, OH 43068.
Senders should include information about the person or animal that the tick was attached to, the county where it was found and the sender’s contact information.
More information about ticks and Lyme disease symptoms and treatment can be found by typing tick in the search bar at www.dnr.state.oh.us/ and www.cdc.gov.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.