With patches of snow still on the ground in Maine, ticks are on the move. It only takes the temperature rising about 38 degrees for ticks to become active and start searching for a host, according to tick expert Jim Dill of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
So now is the time to think about protecting yourself. Many ticks in Maine carry a variety of diseases that can be transferred to people (and pets).
Combatting ticks in your backyard
To reduce your risk of contracting a tick-borne disease, health officials in Maine recommend the “No Ticks 4 ME” approach:
- Use caution in tick infested areas
- Wear protective clothing
- Use an EPA approved repellant
- Perform daily tick checks after any outdoor activity
In Maine, every single county is now home to ticks, which essentially infiltrated the state from the south about a decade ago. However, ticks are more prevalent along the coast and in southern Maine. The rate of Lyme disease in Maine was highest in the Midcoast region in 2014, according to a Maine CDC data available online through the Maine Tracking Network.
Avoid wading through grassy areas if at all possible. Ticks cling to the end of grass and low-lying foliage, with front legs outstretched, looking for a host.
In general, the more skin you cover up with clothing, the better. Consider wearing lightweight pants instead of shorts while spending time outdoors this spring, and while it’s not exactly fashion-forward, also consider tucking those pants into your socks. Ticks often climb up people’s legs to find a good spot to bite. Also, their dark, tiny bodies are easier to detect on light-colored clothing.
There are a number of tick repellents on the market right now, including permethrin, a chemical spray that is used to treat clothing (not skin!).
And when it comes to daily tick checks, be sure to use your eyes and fingers to look for ticks all over your body. This is easier to do with a trusted partner. Remember that ticks like warm crevasses and can hide in your hair!
If you do find a tick attached to you (their head embedded in your skin), remove it using tweezers or a tick-removal device. Grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible, then pull it away gently and steadily until it releases. More information about tick removal, including helpful photos, can be found online on the UMaine Cooperative Extension website at https://extension.umaine.edu/ipm/tickid/tick-removal/.
Watch out for Lyme disease
The most common of these diseases is Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that is caused by a bite from an infected deer tick (also known as black-legged tick). The infection often causes flu-like symptoms and a rash, and if gone untreated, it can progress to attack different body systems, such as the nervous system.
Last year, there were 1,171 cases of Lyme disease reported in Maine, according to a press release sent today by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. While that number seems scary, it’s lower than the 1,399 cases of Lyme disease reported to the CDC in Maine in 2014.
In Maine, Lyme disease is most common in adults 65 and over and children between the ages of 5 and 15, but anyone can get the disease. Individuals who work or play outside are more likely to be exposed to ticks.
In most cases, the deer tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted to a human, according to the CDC. However, there have been cases reported in which Lyme disease was transmitted in less time. “Anecdotal reports tell of transmission in less than 4 hours,” according to the online resource “Learn the Facts” published by the Lyme Action Network.
If you are bitten by a tick, or work in a known tick habitat, the CDC suggests watching for symptoms for up to 30 days, and calling a healthcare provider if symptoms develop. However, other groups and health care professionals suggest people be more proactive and visit the doctor’s office immediately after being bitten by a tick. Lyme disease is becoming increasingly common in Maine, and the symptoms are often hard to detect.
The most common and visible symptom of Lyme disease is a red bulls-eye rash that grows and appears within 3-30 days of exposure. However, it’s important to note that not all people who have Lyme disease develop this rash.
Other symptoms may include fevers, and joint or muscle pain.
Lyme disease is detectable and often treatable. In general, the sooner you treat the disease, the less harm it can do to your body. But if the disease goes untreated, it can become chronic, meaning you may never be entirely rid of it.
If you’re a pet owner, remember that Lyme disease can be a serious problem for dogs, horses and cats. Of those pets, it is most common in dogs, and veterinarians are testing for the disease and treating animals for it regularly. To read more about Lyme disease in dogs, check out my 2015 blog “More tick diseases showing up in dogs and cats.”
MaineLyme will be presenting several “tick talks” throughout the state this year. To learn more about these presentations, visit www.mainelyme.org.
Other tick-borne diseases you should know about
Deer ticks can transmit not only Lyme disease, but also two other tick-borne infections that are present in Maine: anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Babesiosis cases increased in 2015 and cases of Anaplasmosis remained steady.
The deer tick is the only tick that can transmit Lyme disease, but there are other species of ticks throughout the state, and they are capable of transmitting other diseases.
Tick identification references are available to order online at Maine CDC’s website, and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Tick ID Lab offers free identification services and educational resources.
You can also learn some interesting (and often disturbing) facts about ticks from my story “Maine tick myths, revealed,” published by the BDN in 2012.