What to watch out for when it comes to ticks
As the weather warms and people begin to emerge from their winter lairs, it is once again time to take precautions against ticks and the diseases they carry. The life cycle of ticks can vary depending on the species. Most ticks go through four stages: egg, six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph, and adult. After hatching from the egg, a tick must obtain a blood meal at every stage to survive. Ticks can feed on mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. There are three main types of ticks on Long Island, each with their own array of pathogens. Knowing how to identify each species is helpful in order to know their potential as a vector.
The deer tick is tiny, less than 1/8 inch in its adult phase, and the nymphs are even smaller, about the size of a poppy seed. Another name for these ticks is the blacklegged tick due to the color of their eight legs. These ticks are widespread in the United States, with a range that extends from Maine to Florida and westward to around the Great Lakes. Deer ticks are commonly encountered in mixed forests, along the woodland edges of fields and even in suburban landscapes. Their life cycle begins in spring, when females lay eggs in fallen leaves. The nymphs emerge in early summer and have their first feed, usually on a small mammal. It’s here that they may become carriers for Lyme disease, since many mice and other rodents are infected. Deer ticks will feed on human hosts at any stage. According to the CDC, some other illnesses carried by deer ticks include babesiosis, anaplasmosis and Powassan virus.
Another tick that can be found on Long Island is the American dog tick. These ticks are larger, around ¼ inch, with brown bodies and legs and a mottled back. Unlike most other species of tick, dog ticks prefer the same host during all life stages. Dog ticks do not contribute to the spread of Lyme, but they can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Tularemia. Dog ticks are found throughout most of the United States, as far west as the Rocky Mountains.
The other species of tick commonly seen on Long Island is the Lone Star tick. It is slightly smaller than the dog tick and has a distinctive white spot on its back, hence the name. This tick is found in the eastern United States, from Florida to Maine, and west to the central plains states. This tick carries Ehrlichiosis, Tularemia, STARI, and its saliva can cause alpha-gal allergy, which is sudden allergy to red meat.
Ticks are generally found in wooded areas and places with tall grass, but they can be anywhere where their host has traveled. This means that if there are squirrels, birds or mice in a neighborhood, there are probably ticks there as well. Thus, it makes sense to know the symptoms of tick-borne illnesses. Even if you do not find an engorged tick on your body, fever, body aches, and malaise in the summer, when flu is unusual, and especially after spending time outside, would be cause for concern. Dr. Bruce Farber, an infectious disease doctor at Northwell Health Infectious Disease, put it this way: “from a practical point of view, the way to think about these is that in the winter, it’s flu and respiratory viruses until proven otherwise. And in the summer, it’s tick-borne until proven otherwise, particularly in endemic areas, which we all live in.”
A tick must bite and become engorged in order to transmit any diseases it may be carrying. “If the tick is removed within 24-hour period of time, then it’s very unlikely that you will get sick from it. It has to be engorged in order for you to get Lyme, babesiosis and all the other tick-borne diseases that are less common but seen here. We don’t see a lot of Rocky Mountain spotted fever but we do see an occasional case. We’ve not seen, to any large degree, any of the more uncommon tick-borne related diseases that that are being spread by the lone star tick, which now is in New York, but they’re also possible.”
The safest way to avoid tick-borne illness is to not be bitten by ticks. Common sense measures for safety are wearing light colored clothing to make crawling ticks easier to see. Always wear long pants and sleeves, and tuck everything in, including the cuffs of your pants into your socks. Use repellents that contain DEET and follow their directions. You can also wear clothing that has been treated with permethrin. Walk in the center of trails and check your clothing frequently. Check pets carefully before letting them enter the house. Dry clothing on high for ten minutes to kill ticks. Inspect your skin thoroughly.
What to watch out for when it comes to ticks