Summer time is a great time to enjoy the outdoors, but with it comes flying and crawling pests, their bites, and the potential for getting sick from those bites.
This year especially, the tick population is exploding in Massachusetts, so it’s important to understand these tiny pests and the danger they present. Ticks are small crawling bugs in the spider family. They are arachnids, not insects. There are hundreds of different kinds of ticks in the world. Many of them carry bacteria, viruses or other pathogens that cause disease in humans and animals.
There are three common types of ticks found here in New England:
Deer ticks This tick is a carrier for Lyme disease. The larvae and nymph size ticks feed on chipmunks and mice, while adult ticks feed on larger mammals, such as deer and occasionally bite humans. The nymphs size ticks are the size of a poppy seed and feed from May through July, and then as adult ticks feed from October through December, and then again from April through June. The adult tick is about the size of a sesame seed.
American Dog ticks This tick is the most common one found in New England and is the size of a watermelon seed when unfed. Female dog ticks feed from April through August, mainly from dogs and other small mammals. These ticks can be exposed to the causative agent of Lyme disease but are not competent carriers for the transmission of the disease.
Lonestar ticks Despite sounding like it should live in Texas, this tick is named for its white spot, or “star” on its back. Adult ticks are active feeding from April through September and are most commonly biting humans, dogs, and other small animals. Tests have shown that this tick is highly unlikely to transmit Lyme disease but is known to cause a rash, less severe but similar to the one caused by Lyme disease.
While Lyme disease is the predominant illness in New England that can be contracted from a tick bite, ticks don’t start out being infected with Lyme. They get it by feeding on an infected animal, often a mouse or other small rodent. Then, they pass it along to the next animal or person they bite.
Experts disagree about how long it takes a tick to transmit Lyme disease. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that in most cases, the tick must be attached more than 24 hours. Some research studies show that 5-7 percent of nymphs transmitted the Lyme bacteria in less than 24 hours. One report cited a case of Lyme disease transmitted after six hours of tick attachment. The risk may be low the first day, but it’s not zero.
Furthermore, some studies show that only 30 percent of patients with Lyme disease recall a tick bite. If people don’t even know if or when they were bitten, they can’t know how long the tick was attached. The important thing to know is that the longer a tick stays on you, the more likely it will transmit disease. It’s important to find and remove any tick as soon as possible.
So what is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. 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 – the most common being a reddish “bulls-eye” rash in the bite area — and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks. Laboratory testing is helpful if used correctly and performed with validated methods. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics.
The tiny deer ticks that transmit Lyme disease can occasionally transmit other tick-borne diseases as well, so it’s a good idea to avoid them in general. You can find ticks where the animals they feed on live. This usually includes wooded and grassy areas. An adult tick “quests” for its next blood meal by climbing up grasses and bushes to wait for an animal to pass by. Nymphs and larvae are typically found in layers of decomposing leaves underneath trees. Ticks thrive in damp environments and are less active in hot, dry weather.
Steps to prevent Lyme disease include:
- using insect repellent
- removing ticks promptly
- applying pesticides to suspected tick habitat, and
- reducing tick habitat by cutting down or removing low brush and tall grasses
Keep in mind that a little prevention will go a long way. Just because there are tiny pests out there that pose a risk doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all get outside, get some exercise, have fun, and enjoy nature. Just keep an eye out for insects and ticks and use your bug repellent!