Bill Starr: Ticks are truly scary

Published 10:53 am Wednesday, October 21, 2015

As we approach Halloween you will probably hear lots about creepy, crawly, scary things. There will be lots of haunted houses, scary movies, and sightings of ghouls and goblins, but I wanted to make you aware of something that truly can be scary: Ticks!!
There are several species of ticks in Georgia but the most commonly associated with humans in Georgia: The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum), American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) and black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis). Ticks are one of the most important groups of arthropods in Georgia due to their disease-transmitting capabilities. In Georgia, ticks are known to transmit several diseases, with Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease being the most common.
Ticks feed by inserting their mouth parts into the skin of their host and slowly sucking in blood. Sometimes humans act as hosts for ticks, causing tick-borne diseases to be an important public health problem. All three tick species develop through a similar life cycle. Each stage must have a blood meal for the tick to mature into an adult and lay eggs for the next generation. The adult female is fertilized by the male while she is engorging with blood on her host. She will then drop off the host and, in about three to 10 days, begin laying approximately 6,000 eggs in a mass. Within two weeks to several months, depending on the environment, the eggs hatch into six-legged larvae called “seed ticks.” Seed ticks will usually be concentrated in the area where the eggs were laid; consequently, unsuspecting hosts can become infested by significant numbers of larvae.
The “seed” or larval ticks will typically climb up a blade of grass and wait for a host — usually a small rodent. After engorging with blood, the larval tick will drop off the host, shed its skin and change into an eight-legged nymph. The nymph will seek another host, engorge with blood, drop off, shed its skin and develop into the adult stage. Adult ticks usually prefer to feed on large animals such as deer, horses, dogs or humans. Ticks are very adept at locating a host by detecting exhaled carbon dioxide and body warmth. Feeding is usually painless to the host and may take several days for completion. Larval, nymph and adult ticks can each survive up to a year waiting for a host.
Ticks survive best in high grass or brushy areas that are also attractive to their hosts. Game trails and large deer populations are often associated with large tick populations. Ticks also need a high level of moisture for survival. Bottomlands where high humidity, thick vegetation and high deer populations often occur are typically preferred tick habitats. Conversely, dehydration from hot, dry weather combined with short grass that has little or no mulch can be fatal to ticks.
All three stages of the Lone Star and black-legged ticks will feed on humans and other large animals. The American dog tick feeds on humans only in the adult stage. Ticks are commonly found in shady areas, moist ground litter, tall grass, brush and low tree branches, and along trails in the woods. They can also be found in backyards that back up to woody areas.
The scary part about ticks is their potential to transmit diseases which can be serious to humans.
• The most important tick-borne disease in the southeastern U.S. continues to be Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which is caused by Rickettsia rickettsii, a rickettsial or bacteria-like organism. Rocky Mountain spotted fever has a fatality rate of three to five percent, with two-thirds of the cases occurring in children under the age of 15. This disease is characterized by a sudden onset of chills, fever, headache and bloodshot eyes. The name “spotted fever” refers to the rash that appears two to four days after the onset of fever. The rash characteristically starts on the hands and feet as small, flat, pink spots that do not itch and gradually spreads to most of the body. The disease can be easily misdiagnosed as measles. Diagnosis is aided by a history of a recent tick bite and confirmed by a blood test. Antibiotics provide effective treatment. The American dog tick is the primary vector.
•  Lyme disease was first recognized in Georgia in 1987. While cases occur all over the state, the largest numbers occur in the northern half of the state. The black-legged tick is the primary vector, especially in the nymphal stage. Its small size (1/16 inch) probably contributes to the failure to detect the nymph while feeding. The later stages of Lyme disease can begin weeks or even years after being bitten by an infected tick and can be very serious. This stage of the disease can be easily misdiagnosed because it mimics a variety of cardiovascular, arthritic and neurological diseases. Joint pain can be severe, with permanent destruction of bone and cartilage of the joints if left untreated. No deaths have been reported due to initial infection, but complications may affect the life span of some individuals. Personal protection, early diagnosis and quick treatment are your best defense against Lyme disease.
So how do you avoid trying to come in contact with ticks? The best way to avoid tick bites and tick-borne diseases is to stay in areas where the vegetation is open or maintained below ankle height. When on wooded trails, in high grass or in brushy areas, it is imperative to take personal precautions. Avoiding vegetation that brushes against the body, especially the legs, is essential to avoiding host-seeking ticks. Otherwise, wear long pants. Tuck the pant leg into your socks and tuck your shirt under your belt. The tick will move up toward the head where detecting it is easier. You don’t want the tick to get under your clothing where detection is more difficult.
Use a repellent. Repellents containing “DEET” are available in many brands and formulations. Liquid formulations of DEET can be rubbed on the skin and will normally provide protection for several hours. DEET in aerosols can be sprayed on clothing as well as skin for added protection. Permanone(R), a repellent containing the insecticide permethrin, comes only as an aerosol and is sprayed on clothing only. It is long-lasting and not only repels but also kills ticks. The best combination is to put DEET on skin (as directed on the label) and Permanone (R) on clothing.
Check yourself for ticks at least twice a day. There is evidence that the longer an infected tick feeds, the greater the chance it has of transmitting a disease to you. Early removal is good prevention.
Remove embedded ticks with forceps, cloth or paper wrapped around the tick as near to the point of attachment as possible. Use a firm, steady pull. Do not jerk or twist because you may break off the mouth parts and get the site infected. Do not use unprotected fingers. Apply a disinfectant to the site immediately after removing a tick and diligently wash your hands with hot, soapy water. Our area has many beautiful outdoor recreation areas, and I believe we should continue to enjoy them. Taking a few precautions and being aware of the symptoms of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and the other, less-common diseases should give you good protection against ticks and tick-borne diseases.
I will admit ticks can be scary but there is an old saying the more you know the less you fear.

Bill Starr is Sumter County Extension coordinator, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 229-924-4476.