It’s spring, and after months of being locked down, people are getting outside again. Just a reminder, though: The longer, warmer days of April are also the start of tick season, the peak of which lasts through August.
Ticks commonly overwinter by “nesting” in groups, taking refuge under the soil, ground litter and snow cover which acts as an insulating blanket, sheltering them from the frigid winter temperatures. When warmer weather arrives, they position themselves on vegetation and wait patiently, front legs outstretched, for any warm-blooded host to pass by, a behavior known as “questing.” When one does, the tick latches on and soon begins taking its next blood meal.
Ticks and tick-borne diseases have become a significant public health issue in New York. It’s imperative that you protect yourself, your family and your pets when enjoying the outdoors.
Ticks have been here forever
According to some experts, ticks have been on the planet for about 120 million years — literally forever.
In the journal Nature, Volume 206, Issue 4988, pp. 1060-1061 (1965), an article titled “Ticks in Egypt in 1500 BC?” by D.R. Arthur, features a drawing dating back to the 15th-century BC showing what are believed to be three ticks fixed firmly to the ear of a hyena. And a recent autopsy on a 5,300-year-old mummy indicated the presence of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
In his “Historia Animalium,” Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) describes the tick as a “disgusting parasitic animal … generated from couch grass.” The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.), in his extensive natural history of the world “Historia Naturalis,” denotes “an animal living on blood with its head always fixed and swelling,” adding that “this animal is frequent on cattle, sometimes on dogs.” He goes on to call them “the foulest and nastiest creatures that be.”
German physician Alfred Buchwald first described the chronic skin rash now known as Lyme disease in 1883. It wasn’t clinically recognized, however, until 1975, when a group of children and adults in and around the hamlet of Lyme, Connecticut, were suffering from skin rashes followed very quickly by arthritic conditions, headaches and fatigue. All cited being bitten by ticks. Researchers called the condition Lyme disease, but the cause remained a mystery until 1981, when medical entomologist and self-described “tick surgeon” Wilhelm “Willy” Burgdorfer discovered the infectious agent that causes Lyme disease, a bacterial spirochete that now bears his name: Borrelia burgdorferi.
Lyme disease (or Lyme borreliosis) is one of the fastest-growing vector-borne infections in the United States with, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 400,000 new cases reported annually. Untreated, Lyme disease can become severely debilitating, affecting joints, the heart, the brain and/or the central nervous system.
Roughly half a million Americans currently grapple with late-stage Lyme disease, for which there is no recognized cure. Long-term antibiotic use remains controversial.
The black-legged tick, Ixodes scapularis, more commonly known as the deer tick, is the primary vector for Lyme disease.
Prevention is key
With geographic spread and steadily increasing incidence of Lyme disease, there’s an urgent need for homeowners, public health officials and the pest control industry to learn how to manage and/or control the unrelenting tick problem.
Treating clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin can provide extremely effective protection. Permethrin can be used to treat boots, clothing and camping gear, and will remain protective even after several washings. Read the product label, and be sure to follow the directions carefully. The label is the law! You can also buy permethrin-treated clothing and gear.
When hiking or camping, avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter, and stick to the center of the trails. The wider the trail and the less vegetation it has beside and within it, the less risky it will be.
When you come indoors, check your clothing, gear and pets carefully. Tumble-drying clothes on high heat for 10 to 15 minutes will kill ticks.
Conduct a full body check of yourself and your children. Take a shower. And call your doctor if you get a fever or a rash.
Keeping your yard tick-safe
Simple steps you can take to reduce potential exposure to ticks include:
¯ cleaning up old wood piles and stacking wood neatly in a dry area
¯ removing any piles of leaves and/or leaf litter on your property
¯ mowing the lawn frequently and clearing tall grasses and brush from around your home and at the edge of the lawn
¯ establishing a 3-foot-wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas to restrict tick migration into recreational areas
¯ fencing off vegetable gardens and fruit trees to keep deer away
¯ discouraging unwelcome animals (e.g., deer, raccoons, dogs) from entering your yard by constructing fences
¯ keeping playground equipment, decks and patios away from yard edges, trees and shrubs.
CCE can help
For more information about ticks, tick diseases, and how to avoid them and protect yourself and your family, visit Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County’s online resource “Tick Talk” at franklin.cce.cornell.edu/gardening-grounds/tick-talk.