Tick sick: Mild winter may bring more ticks

Published 10:53 am Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A mild 2016 winter may mean an increase in ticks in Kentucky this summer.

According to University of Kentucky entomologist Lee Townsend, because of the mild winter, more ticks may have survived to spring and summer. In addition, they may be coming out of hibernation earlier with warm temperatures, according to Carlene Whitt of the Clark County Health Department.

While the majority of tick bites cause only a minor irritation that lasts up to 10 days, some ticks can carry more serious diseases that can be spread to the people they bite.

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In Kentucky, the most common ticks are Lone Star Ticks and American Dog Ticks. In rare cases, these ticks can carry Tularemia, Ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

They are most commonly found in areas with tall plant life, like grass or shrubs, and along the edge of wooded areas where they can latch onto human and animal passers-by.

Whitt said the health department typically focuses its efforts on mosquito prevention during the spring and summer months, but many of the practices for preventing mosquitos can apply to preventing ticks as well.

“The number one practice with preventing ticks, in particular, is to not go where they would be,” Whitt said. “Of course, this isn’t of much help to people who enjoy outdoor activities, such as camping and hiking.”

For those who spend their work or leisure time outside, there are several ways to prevent tick bites.

The first is with repellents, particularly containing diethyltoluamide (DEET). DEET can be applied directly to the skin and can help keep ticks from biting.

“Always read the instructions before applying repellant, especially to children,” Whitt said. “Often there are different instructions for application between adults and children.”

Another method to prevent tick bites is to wear long clothing that covers the arms and legs, particularly with lighter colors so that ticks can be identified before they establish themselves.

“It takes a tick two to three hours to pick a good location to bite,” Whitt said. “A good rule when outside is to check yourself for ticks every 2-3 hours.”

On humans, ticks will typically attempt to attach themselves on the neck, behind the ears or on the legs, but they are capable of biting anywhere.

Additionally, maintenance of one’s living area itself can help reduce the number of ticks nearby, Whitt said.

“Keeping the grass cut short, keeping garbage covered up and even putting up a fence will help discourage animals that carry ticks from approaching,” she said.

Not all animals are encouraged to stay away though. Whitt said that a common way ticks get inside homes is by riding in on pets, especially dogs.

“Be sure to check the outside dog before you let it back inside the house,” she said.

Whitt said the best method for checking a dog for ticks is to go over it with a fairly fine-toothed comb, parting the hair and looking for any of the bugs near the animal’s skin.

She said some common areas ticks like to attach themselves to on dogs include around the ears, on the underbelly and anywhere where the fur is thin.

When removing a tick, either from a human or another animal, the best method is to use a fine-tipped pair of tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible, and pull back and forth with steady pressure to work the tick off the skin. Whitt said it is important not to jerk the tick off because pieces of it could remain embedded in the skin.

Once the tick is removed, the bite area should be cleaned with disinfectant.

Whitt said that there are some labs that are able to test ticks to see if they carry any diseases, but none of the labs are located in Kentucky. She said that if someone wants to have a tick tested, they will have to seek out a private lab outside of the state.

Prevention is key to avoiding disease

While it is a good idea to take preventive measures against ticks year-round, be extra vigilant in warmer months (April-September) when ticks are most active.

— Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.

— Use repellent that contains 20 percent or more DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 on exposed skin for protection that lasts several hours.

— Treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents with products containing permethrin.

— Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.

— Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body upon return from tick-infested areas. Parents should check their children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and in their hair.

— Carefully remove ticks using fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp the tick as to the skin’s surface as possible and pull upward. Don’t twist or jerk the tick. Clean the area thoroughly with alcohol or soap and water.

— If a rash or fever develops after removing a tick, consult a doctor.