COLUMBUS — Warmer weather is finally here and with the rising temperatures comes the emergence of ticks that may carry dangerous diseases, and are now looking to feed.
“Ticks will be out looking for a blood meal,” said Glen Needham, an entomologist and tick expert with Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the university’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
“We want people to understand there’s a risk of getting sick from tick bites when they are outdoors, and that there are things they can do to keep themselves, their families and their pets safe.”
Ticks are small arachnids that hang out along woodland edges, in woods, tall grass, weeds and underbrush. Like mosquitoes, ticks feed on the blood of birds, reptiles and mammals, including humans and pets. In doing so, ticks can transmit a variety of diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease.
Needham said researchers and public health authorities are paying particular attention to Lyme disease, which was rare in Ohio in the past but has seen a significant increase statewide in recent years. Lyme disease is transmitted by the blacklegged deer tick, whose first established population was discovered in Coshocton County in 2010.
May has been declared Lyme Disease Awareness Month throughout the U.S. to increase knowledge about this ailment and how to prevent it. Blacklegged deer ticks are found primarily in wooded areas, so hikers, hunters and others who frequent those places should be particularly cautious.
“Blacklegged deer ticks have been found in 56 Ohio counties and are now likely established in 26 of those counties, mostly east of I-71 where we have deciduous forest,” Needham said. “Most people who get Lyme disease will get it from the nymphal or juvenile stage of the blacklegged deer tick, which is very small, the size of a poppy seed, and is active in spring and summer.
“This makes it harder to identify and to know you may have been exposed to the disease.”
Lyme disease causes flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, fever, headache, and muscle and joint aches. It also produces a distinctive large, circular red rash that looks like a bull’s-eye. If caught early, the disease can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
Though not known to be fatal, the disease can progress to chronic arthritis, neurological symptoms and cardiac problems if left untreated.
In 2010, 43 cases of Lyme disease were reported in Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Health. That number grew to 50 in 2011 and 67 in 2012.
Needham recommends the following precautions to keep people and pets safe from Lyme disease and other tick-transmitted illnesses (more information, including tick pictures, is available at http://www.go.osu.edu):
• If possible, avoid going into wooded areas in counties where blacklegged deer ticks have been established.
• When going into wooded areas, wear long pants and tuck them into socks, and tuck shirts into pants, to keep ticks on the outside of clothing where they are more easily visible.
• Apply repellent containing permethrin to pants, socks and boots and allow them to dry; or use DEET-containing repellents with at least 25 percent active ingredient.
• Use anti-tick products on pets; ask your veterinarian about Lyme disease vaccines for pets where blacklegged deer ticks are found.
• Ticks have to feed for more than a day before they may transmit disease. If you are in a tick-infested area, check yourself, children and pets daily.
• If you find a tick, grasp it as close to the skin as possible with a pair of tweezers, a commercially designed tick remover or protected thumb and finger; slowly pull the tick out.
“Techniques such as using nail polish, rubbing alcohol, petroleum jelly or a hot object to ‘back the tick out’ don’t work. Those are just myths and delay removal,” Needham said.
The blacklegged deer tick is not the only tick to be on the lookout for in Ohio. The American dog tick, the most commonly found tick in the state, is responsible for transmitting Rocky Mountain spotted fever. American dog ticks are much bigger and their main habitat is grassy areas along paths and roads.
Another common tick in Ohio is the Lone star tick, which can carry a disease known as Ehrlichiosis. The Lone star tick is found mostly in southern Ohio but it’s beginning to move into central Ohio, aided by recent relatively mild winters and being dispersed by migratory birds, Needham said. It is typically found in wooded or shrubby areas.
“When I came to Ohio in the late 1970s, the only tick people had to worry about was the American dog tick,” he said. “In the past few years, there has definitely been an increase both in the number of ticks out there and in the types of ticks becoming established in Ohio.”
Larger tick populations and new types of ticks are not the only things that trouble Needham.
The Ohio Department of Health’s Zoonotic Disease Program, which tracks the spread of mosquito- and tick-borne diseases, is slated to lose its funding as a result of state budget cuts that will go into effect July 1. Needham works closely with this program.
“Without this resource, we won’t know where blacklegged deer ticks are in the state, which will make the work on prevention of Lyme disease much more challenging,” he said.