Tips for Tick Season

We’re not even through the sneezy, sniffly, coughing and wheezing allergy months and now we’re faced with the itching, biting and scratching bug season. It isn’t fair – but that’s spring in Connecticut. Unfortunately, the number of people infected with diseases transmitted by ticks, mosquitos and fleas has more than tripled over the past few years, and the prognosis for 2019 doesn’t appear any better.

Of great concern is the possibility of contracting Lyme disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks, which are common to Connecticut. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings (such as a rash), and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. Steps to prevent Lyme disease include using insect repellent, removing ticks promptly, applying pesticides, and reducing tick habitat. The ticks that transmit Lyme disease can occasionally transmit other tick-borne diseases as well.

First recognized in the Lyme, Connecticut area in 1975, the State Department of Public Health (DPH) reports about 3,000 cases annually to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But the CDC estimates that there are approximately 10 times more people diagnosed with Lyme disease than the yearly reported number. Using the CDC estimate, approximately 30,000 people are afflicted with Lyme disease each year in Connecticut alone. Nationally, that number is thought to be close to 300,000 cases annually.

Bacteria cause most tickborne diseases in the United States, with Lyme disease representing the majority (82 percent) of reported cases. Borrelia burgdorferi  is carried by hard-bodied ticks that then feed on smaller mammals, such as white-footed mice, and larger animals, such as white-tailed deer. Scientists believe that increased seasonal warming, caused by climate change, is a contributing factor to the proliferation of these pests.

Although there are likely many additional factors contributing to increased Lyme disease incidence in the United States, greater tick densities and their expanding geographical range have played a key role. Although most cases of Lyme disease are successfully treated with antibiotics, 10 to 20 percent of patients report lingering symptoms after effective antimicrobial therapy.

Tick Season is Here

Tickborne virus infections are also increasing and can cause serious illness and death. Another invasive and disease-carrying tick, the Asian Longhorned tick, has been discovered in Connecticut. Fortunately, it preys primarily on livestock and wildlife and isn’t yet considered a threat to humans, experts say. The newly arrived pest was found by scientists at Western Connecticut State University last summer during a monitoring project in Fairfield County. It had previously been identified in New York, and across the eastern and southern United States over the past few decades. Found in grassy and wooded areas, researchers suggest using the same precautions against this species as for native ticks, including protective clothing, insect repellents and close checking of skin after being in the outdoors where ticks are present.

In addition to tick concerns, certain types of mosquitos carry diseases such as West Nile Virus (WNV), which has been present in Connecticut since 1999 in mosquitoes, horses, wild birds and people. Most people who are infected with WNV have no symptoms or may experience mild illness such as a fever and headache before fully recovering. In some individuals, particularly persons over 50 years of age, West Nile virus can cause serious illness, including encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord). Symptoms range from a slight fever, headache, rash, swollen lymph nodes and nausea to the rapid onset of a severe headache, high fever, stiff neck, disorientation, muscle weakness, and coma. West Nile virus infection can lead to death in three percent to 15 percent of persons with severe forms of the illness.

Health professionals also are keeping a vigilant watch for the Zika virus, which is spread mostly by the bite of infected Aedes species mosquitos, which bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika, and while local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission has been reported primarily in tropical climates like Florida, Connecticut experienced a few dozen cases in 2018.

Unless you plan to spend the summer indoors, you’re likely to come in contact with some of these annoying pests. You can improve your odds of not getting bitten by wearing protective clothing, headgear and socks, using insect repellants and citronella products, minimizing use of cologne and perfume when planning outdoor activities, avoiding swampy areas, and moving the party indoors during the height of bite time. You also can spray clothes with repellent containing permethrin, and use a repellant like DEET on your skin.

Protecting Against Ticks and Mosquitoes

While it is a good idea to take preventive measures against ticks and mosquitoes year-round, be extra vigilant in warmer months (April through September) when ticks are most active. In summer, when out hiking, biking, camping, and spending time in and around grass and woods, there are several steps you can take to limit bites from ticks, mosquitoes and other disease-bearing insects:

  • Avoid direct contact with ticks and mosquitoes as possible. If you can, avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. When hiking, picnicking or walking, try to remain in the center of trails.
  • Use repellents that contain 20 percent or more DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on the exposed skin for protection that lasts up to several hours. Always follow product instructions. Parents should apply this product to their children, avoiding hands, eyes, and mouth.
  • Use products that contain permethrin on clothing. Treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents. It remains protective through several washings. Pre-treated clothing is available and remains protective for up to 70 washings.

If you’re using other repellents, go to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website for safety information.

Ridding Ourselves of Ticks

 Ticks embedded in your skin can be gross, but painless. The best bet is to keep them at bay. But if they do find you, here are tips for dealing with them easily and effectively:

  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors (preferably within two hours) 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 especially in their hair.
  • Examine gear and pets. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later, so carefully examine pets, coats, and day packs. Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill remaining ticks.
  • Consult your doctor or a nurse (or internet sources) to determine the best method for removing the tick; it’s important to remove the entire tick, or it can leave parts embedded in your skin.

Should you or a family member develop a bulls-eye-type red rash near the bite site, or exhibit other side effects such as a fever, lethargy or extreme exhaustion, consult your doctor. You may need to be tested for Lyme disease.

If you know you have an allergy to one or more biting insects, you should always carry an epi-pen or other backup medication in case you’re stung or bitten, and seek immediate medical attention. For the rest of us, most bites or stings leave a mark and cause some swelling and irritation. Ice or a cool compress applied directly to the site can bring relief, as can topical salves, ointments or sprays sold over the counter. If the area around the bite continues to expand or becomes blistery and weepy, you have to get checked for a possible infection.

 


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!