It’s that time of year when you might feel that faint crawling feeling on your skin. It’s so gentle, it could be a stray hair or piece of fuzz.
But then you look down and there on your skin is what looks like a poppy seed with spindly legs, trekking across your arm like a triceratops in a forest.
It’s tick season.
Whenever temperatures get above freezing, it’s tick season, but Holly Ahern said the lady ticks are especially hungry and looking to feed this time of year. Ahern is an associate professor of microbiology at SUNY Adirondack and one of the leading Lyme disease experts and advocates in New York.
“It’s bad right now,” she said about the ticks. “It’s only going to get worse, that’s the bad news.”
Ticks carry a number of diseases, and research shows they’re carrying more lethal ones in the Adirondack region, too. The more notable concern is Lyme disease, which can be difficult to diagnose and even more tricky to treat.
About 100,000 cases of Lyme were documented in New York last year, and Ahern said every tick bite carries a 50-50 chance of infection.
Powassan virus is also a problem. Researchers from Paul Smith’s College recently discovered that more ticks in the Adirondacks are carrying the lethal virus than previously thought.
To protect yourself from tick-borne illnesses, Ahern recommends the “three r’s”: repel, recognize and remove.
Here are some ways to repel ticks and keep them from biting you in the first place, so you can enjoy the outdoors instead of, as Ahern put it, locking yourself in your home and setting your lawn on fire.
Repel ticks from yourself
Protecting yourself from ticks includes conducting a regular tick check, wearing light-colored clothing so you can see them easier, tucking your socks into your pants to protect your ankles and spraying yourself with Deet bug spray.
Tick checks should include looking at your armpits, neck, belly button, ankles and other tricky places where ticks sometimes like to hide.
Companies are also developing new methods to keep bugs away.
Many outdoor stores now offer clothing treated with permethrin, a tick and insect repellent, or permethrin spray to treat your own clothes.
The treatment usually withstands multiple washes. The treated clothing available is getting more stylish, too.
A company called Pesky’s (peskys.com), started by a young woman who has suffered from Lyme disease, has developed a line of anti-tick jogging and yoga wear.
Essential oils can be helpful for those looking for more natural solutions. Buzz Away Extreme is Deet-free, but includes citronella, geranium, lemongrass and cedarwood oils, among others.
Oils need to be reapplied like sunscreen, Ahern said.
Repel ticks from pets
Dogs and cats can contract Lyme disease, too, although they often don’t show symptoms, according to Cornell University.
Pet owners should look for sporadic fever, loss of appetite, lethargy and lameness, which can develop months after an animal is infected, and contact a vet if Lyme is suspected.
Some topical treatments can be applied to dogs and cats, usually between the shoulder blades, that kill the ticks before they bite.
Flea and tick collars also provide protection for months at a time. Some horse owners have been known to strap the collars around horses’ legs, Ahern said.
While the collars work well, Ahern and Department of Health experts said they’re toxic. Animals are thought to be better protected against the poison by their hair or fur, which is why humans, for example, shouldn’t wear them.
Tick Encounter Resource Center out of the University of Rhode Island has investigated products to protect animals from ticks, and its findings can be checked out at tickencounter.org/prevention/tick_control.
Pets, including horses and livestock, can also be vaccinated for Lyme disease. Cornell University also has an Animal Health Diagnostic Center that can test for multiple tick-borne diseases.
Repel ticks from your lawn
Maintenance practices for your lawn can also help protect you and your pets from ticks.
Here are some tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Mow your lawn, keep leaves raked and keep brush away from your home;
- Keep playground equipment and outdoor furniture away from yard edges and in a sunny spot;
- Apply wood chips or rocks to separate lawns from a wooded area;
- Plant deer-resistant plants, such as poppies and daffodils.
Recognize and remove ticks
If you are unlucky and get bit or find a tick crawling on you, it’s important to be able to recognize the tick and remove it properly.
The most common ticks in New York are black-legged ticks (also called deer ticks), dog ticks and lone star ticks. To view what each of these kinds of ticks look like go to health.ny.gov/publications/2813.
If it’s attached, remove the tick using these steps from the CDC:
- Grasp the tick as close to the skin as you can with fine-tipped tweezers;
- Pull upward without twisting or jerking and remove the tick;
- Clean the area with rubbing alcohol or soap and water;
- Dispose of the tick in alcohol or by flushing it down the toilet. You can also package the tick in a bag for testing.
The state Health Department also has videos to help guide you in removing a tick.
The state is keeping track of ticks and tick-borne illness data by county. To view annual results, go to healthdata.ny.gov and in the search bar type in “tick.”
If you’re having trouble identifying your tick, an app created by the University of Massachusetts Amherst allows you to submit a photo. The school’s Laboratory of Medical Zoology will identify it for free. To learn more about the app and download it, go to tickreport.com.
This lab will also take your ticks and test them for Lyme disease and other illnesses. Several other labs will do this, too, at varying costs.
You can help keep track of where ticks are using a relatively new app on your phone. It’s called TickTracker, and it’s the brainchild of 13-year-old Olivia Goodreau, who contracted Lyme disease. To map where you’ve found a tick, go to ticktracker.com.
While some people wait for the iconic “bulls-eye” rash to show up before going to a doctor, Ahern said don’t. Only about 10% of Lyme disease cases show the rash.
Ahern recommends asking your health care provider for a full course of antibiotics, because the earlier Lyme disease can be caught, the better the outcomes for patients. Current blood tests for Lyme will appear negative in the first four weeks of infection. Ahern and others are working on more effective ways to test for Lyme disease.
To learn more about Ahern’s nonprofit organization, Lyme Action Network, go to lymeactionnetwork.org.