A public-education seminar on ticks and Lyme disease drew at least two dozen residents to the MS Kirby Library on Aug. 2. Insight was given into how ticks grow and feed, their habitat, the particulars of Lyme disease, and how to prevent it.
Forensic microbiologist Nicole Chinnici, who has experience researching ticks and testing them for infectious diseases, dispelled myths about the parasites and provided valuable information on the best ways to prevent bites and how to react when bitten.
“The more outdoor activities you engage in, the higher the risk you have for being bitten,” Chinnici, who works at the Northeast Wildlife DNA Lab, explained. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t enjoy gardening, hiking, biking, and other outside activities, she said, but rather they should be more informed about ticks and how to check for them on the skin.
Lyme disease is the most-diagnosed infectious disease in Pennsylvania and the state has led, by a huge margin, all other states in the number of cases here since 2011. Because of this, in 2014, the state created a task force on Lyme disease and related tick-borne diseases. Funding for that task force covers educational workshops, like the one held at the Kirby Library, from a CDC Preventative Health block grant.
Ticks carry not just Lyme disease, although that is the most popular, but a list of other infectious diseases. Lyme disease is a bacterial illness that can affect the skin, joints, heart, and the nervous system. It can be treated with antibiotics but often goes undiagnosed as many do not recall or know they’ve been bitten by a tick and, when presented with Lyme symptoms weeks or months later, do not recognize those symptoms as that of the disease.
Chinnici, who has spent her career studying ticks, explained to the curious crowd about how they function. They are ecto-parasites, similar to spiders, and they feed on mammals, birds, and reptiles. What makes them dangerous is their ability to transmit bacterial, protozoan, and viral infections.
A tick has four life stages –eggs, larva, nymph, and adult. Showing photos on a projector and even holding up a tick stuffed animal, Chinnici explained that deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, are the ones responsible for Lyme disease. The illness can be transmitted while the tick is either in the nymph stage, when it is the size of a poppy seed, and the adult stage, when it is a little larger.
Other ticks in this area include the dog tick, which also feeds on humans despite its name and is twice the size of a deer tick, and the lone-star tick, which is red with a white dot in the center.
A tick’s habitat is tall grass, thick brush, stone walls, and the edge of forests. Anywhere it can keep cool and wherever animals like mice or deer are present, ticks will be found. Ticks can’t survive in heat, so short, mowed lawns are an environment where they will dry out and die.
Chinnici told the group then about “questing” or when ticks search for and attach themselves to hosts. They’ll crawl to the end of a blade of grass or brush and stick out their top four legs. When an organ on their body senses a human or animal, by detecting carbon dioxide or body heat, the tick will grab onto the host and begin attaching itself. “They don’t jump, fly, or fall from trees,” she said. “They can only quest from about two feet off the ground.”
Although most prevalent in the spring and summer, ticks can quest all year round. If there is no snowfall on the ground, ticks will be found. Chinnici described last winter when, after snow melted and there were three days of uncharacteristically warm weather, reports of hundreds of tick bites came into her lab. That was because hikers flocked outside to enjoy the weather but didn’t consider that ticks could be active at that time.
The increase in tick population from years prior, Chinnici continued, is attributed to temperature shifts, an increase in both the mice and deer population, and more residential development and sprawl, making more forest edges and thus more tick habitats.
A misconception is that ticks get Lyme disease from deer. This is not true as deer do not carry Lyme; ticks mainly get Lyme and other diseases from mice. They attach themselves to the rodent and are brought into a mouse nest, where they feed and grow. Deer do, however, amplify the population of ticks because hundreds of them will feed on one deer and complete their life cycles on that deer growing from nymph to adult.
In the nymph stage, ticks are the most threatening because they can transmit Lyme disease but they are so hard to see. Often, people don’t see the poppy-seed sized tick until it feeds on them for some time and grows to a pinky-nail size, engorged with the host’s blood.
Chinnici suggested that people make their backyards tick-free zones, by keeping the lawn cut short; spraying the yard with tick repellent or cedar oil; planting lavender or citronella; and placing mulch or cedar wood chips around forest edges.
For those who are outdoors in tick-populated areas, it is recommended that they wear light-colored clothing and long pants tucked into socks, so that ticks can be easily seen and removed before they reach the host’s skin. Bug repellant sprayed on pants, socks, and shoes will decrease the chance of a tick attaching, as the smell of the chemicals will discourage the parasite from grabbing hold.
After any outdoor activity, Chinnici related, “Time is of the essence. You must do a full tick check.” If a tick is attached to a person’s skin, the shorter time it’s there, the easier it is to remove. “The number one rule is always check yourself and your pets, even if you’ve just been outside for a few minutes.”
She also recommended after hiking
or outdoor activity, for a person to shower and throw their clothing into the dryer to a few minutes. The heat will kill any ticks attached to clothing. If a person instead throws their clothes into a laundry pile, the ticks can crawl away and attach to the person later.
If a tick does attach to skin, it often crawls to an area of the body where soft tissue is found, such as the thighs, midsection, forearms, armpits, and scalp. To remove a tick, use tweezers or a tick-removal tool and grasp as close to the head of the parasite as possible, pulling it straight out. Twisting with the tweezers may only remove part of the tick and is advised against.
A misconception is that ticks should be burned or suffocated off of the skin with alcohol or other oils. “Anything that is going to cause the tick to be agitated can cause it to expel its insides into you,” Chinnici explained. “Don’t squeeze the body either, as it can regurgitate into you and infect you.”
Ticks can transmit Lyme disease to people after feeding on them for 18 to 24 hours. “So, the faster you can remove a tick, the better,” she recommended. Ticks can be sent to the Northeast Wildlife DNA lab, where Chinnici and colleagues can test it for Lyme for a fee, or Lyme-testing kits can be bought commercially.
The signs and symptoms of Lyme disease are similar to other diseases and includes headaches, muscle soreness, weakness, fever, chills, and nausea. Many think that if they don’t have a bullseye rash, they don’t have Lyme. This is not true, however, as less than half of those affected with Lyme get this type of rash.
If a person becomes sick, it is important to document every symptom as those associated with Lyme often come and go.
Chinnici stressed the importance of reporting to a doctor that one has been bitten by a tick. Many, she said, forget they’ve been bitten or don’t know it, making it difficult for the doctor to connect the symptoms to that of Lyme disease. And if one is bitten by a tick and removes it himself, he should save the tick in a baggie for later testing, even if it’s months later.