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June, Ticks Suck!!!

Ticks really, really suck. They are reported to suck on more than 300,000 Americans each year, and actual numbers are believed to be far higher. Migratory birds carry the ticks around the world and it’s becoming a pandemic. And can you guess where tick headquarters is located? New England has the greatest concentration of reported cases, with Norfolk, Conn. right smack in the heart of the map. The Icebox is unplugged; global weirding is making our historically icy cold winters too warm to make much difference to the tick population. Contributing to the epidemic are factors such as untended, overgrown farm fields, thickets of invasive barberry and rosa multiflora and people building new homes in previously wooded areas. Tick numbers are up dramatically this spring, according to state officials and local sources.

Deer tick, illustration by Leslie Watkins © 2017.

The myriad symptoms of tick-borne diseases are daunting, bewildering and scary. The list encompasses just about every ailment imaginable, and for good reason. Lyme disease, babesiosis, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, encephalitis, meningitis, Powassan virus and many more diseases combine to create diverse symptoms, and you may be suffering from more than one of these alarming diseases at a time. How can just a single bug be the source of so many problems? Easy, because that bug needs a blood meal at all three transitional stages of its life cycle. The tick’s menu includes different species of animals that in turn carry their own assortment of bacteria and viruses. As the tick moves from one host to another it combines a bloody soup of yuck (a technical term) that can be released into your bloodstream as it feeds. That’s why it’s so important to remove the tick the right way and destroy it. Grrr-osss.

Tick-associated costs—in healthcare, lost time at work, and ability to live a full life—are substantial. John Hopkins reports that the costs are $1.3 billion per year. Bacterial biofilms, persister cells and the drugs used to combat them are avidly being studied by doctors and scientists. Some tick-borne diseases have no known cure.

Ugh, what to do? Quite a bit actually, and it involves diligence. Removing ornamental barberry and rosa multiflora can reduce the population of ticks on your property. The thorny thickets formed by these invasives create a perfect habitat for ticks. The fruit produced by the plants is favored by warm-blooded white-footed mice and snacking birds, who hide safely under the dense cover. The tangled canopy creates a warmer micro-climate that ticks find favorable for raising their 2,000 babies. Burn brush piles, and keep lawns mowed around the house. Avoid walking through tall grassy areas. Wood chip barriers between the edges of woods, gardens and lawns can help keep ticks at bay.

And the good news? Guinea hens and chickens gobble them up. They love them. An industrious flock of free-ranging chickens on your lawn and in your garden can provide you with the peace of mind that will encourage you to venture out-of-doors again. Ticks are also preyed upon by predatory beetles, ants, spiders and centipedes. Keeping natural diversity in your garden can be a big help. Those ever-vigilant beneficial critters are on the job around the clock and can find ticks better than you can.

Take precautions when spending time outside by spraying your clothes with Permethrin-based repellents such as Permadone or Duranon, lasting up to two weeks. DEET, Picaridin, and IR3535 can be applied directly to skin. Tuck in your pant legs, braid your hair and toss your clothes directly into a hot dryer for 15 to 20 minutes when you go inside. Check your body carefully, everywhere (yes, EVERYwhere) when you get in. And if you do find a tick firmly attached to you, see a doctor immediately for treatment. Antibiotics are very effective when used early on.

Tick Checklist

  • Keep tick-removal tools handy.
  • Learn how to remove ticks properly.
  • Brush clothing off outside.
  • Put clothes in plastic bags, do not leave on the floor.
  • Put clothes in a dryer on high heat for 20 minutes.
  • Comb out hair with a fine-tooth comb.
  • Use your fingers to feel for ticks: groin, armpits, scalp.
  • Take a shower and blow-dry hair at high heat.
  • Check again the next morning for engorged ticks.
  • Treat your pets with tick prevention.
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