Keeping a watchful eye for ticks
July 30, 2009
Spring and summer is the time of year when most people spend a lot more time outdoors, so it's important to remember how to prevent tick bites.
Tick borne illness is rising, and the most common is Lyme disease. This is because of continued residential development in the countryside.
May through July is when most tick-borne infections occur, but there are things that can be done to help prevent contracting Lyme and other diseases from ticks.
"People are moving into wooded rural areas, which are prime tick habitats around the country", said Marc Dolan, entomologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "There are a number of tick borne diseases in America and ticks can transmit multiple infections.
"Lyme, which is transmitted by the bite of a deer tick, is increasing also because the whitetail deer population, which is a host for the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, is growing and spreading geographically," he said.
The CDC reports a dramatic increase in Lyme disease over the past decade, from 11,700 cases in 1995 to 21,304 last year. While reporting has improved, the CDC says Lyme still is "greatly underreported." It's most prevalent in the northeast and upper midwest, although Lyme disease is found nationwide.
While Lyme disease can be devastating if not treated early, another tick-borne disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, can be fatal. It is most common in the south, despite its name, with the highest incidence in North Carolina and Tennessee. United States cases increased dramatically to 1,843 last year from 695.
Experts suggest some simple but effective measures to help protect against tick bites.
"When in the woods, or even in the backyard, from early May to early July, when the nymphal [young] ticks that carry Lyme disease are most active, you should use a repellent such as DEET on exposed skin and clothing," Dolan said. "Young ticks are very small and difficult to spot, which is another reason why Lyme disease is such a problem."
To repel ticks, the CDC recommends using DEET (N, N-diethyl-M-Toluamide) products with a concentration of 20 percent to 30 percent, but they protect for only a few hours before reapplication is necessary. Repellent makers say that, based on extensive testing, 15 percent DEET can repel ticks.
Dolan suggests applying a Permethrin-based product on clothing. (Permethrin should never be applied to skin). When sprayed on boots and clothing the repellent will be protective for several days. It is helpful to wear light-colored clothing to more easily spot ticks, and wear long pants with the cuffs tucked into the socks.
Parents should apply this product to their children, avoiding the hands, eyes and mouth.
An alternative to DEET, Picaridin, has recently become available in the United States. Picaridin has limited data published for tick repellency, but it may provide suitable protection.
It's strongly recommended that a thorough tick check be done after coming indoors from a grassy or wooded area.
"That's because if a tick is attached to the skin for less than twenty-four hours, the possibility of infection is extremely low," Dolan said.
Tick checks involve closely examining clothing and skin for ticks, with special attention to the ears, in and around the hair, under the arms, behind the knees, around the waist and between the legs.
When an attached tick is found, it's critical to detach it properly using tweezers because incorrect removal can make infection more likely.
For tick removal instructions, visit http://chppm-www.apgea.army.mil/ento/TickEduc/Tickremoval.pdf, or The Lyme Disease Foundation: www.lyme.org/ticks/removal.html.
Protecting against tick bites
Avoid tick-infested areas. Many local health departments, parks and cooperative extension services have information about the areas most infested with ticks. If in a tick-infested area, walk in the center of the trails to avoid contact with vegetation.
Wear light-colored clothing, which makes it easier to see ticks that are crawling on clothing. Tuck pant legs into socks so that ticks cannot crawl up inside of the pants legs. Some ticks can crawl down into shoes and are small enough to crawl through most socks, but they will usually travel up rather than down.
Perform daily tick checks
Check the body for ticks after being outdoors. Conduct a body check upon return from potentially tick-infested areas by searching the entire body for ticks. Use a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of the body and remove any tick found. Check these parts of the body and child's body for ticks:
Under the arms
In and around the ears
Inside the belly button
Back of the knees
In and around the hair
Between the legs
Around the waist
Check children for ticks, especially in the hair, when returning from potentially tick-infested areas. Remove any tick found on the child's body.
Ticks may be carried into the house on clothing and pets. Check clothing and pets for ticks. Both should be examined carefully, and any ticks that are found should be removed. Placing clothes into a dryer on high heat effectively kills ticks.
Tick removal instructions: http://chppm-www.apgea.army.mil/ento/TickEduc/Tickremoval.pdf or The Lyme Disease Foundation: www.lyme.org/ticks/removal.html