LET'S REMINISCE: Ticks can transmit diseases

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat
Ticks are most prominent from April to September and they like a lot of different habitats. They tend to hang out in areas where there are tall bushes, trees, shrubs and leaf litter.

One of the unpleasant memories from my childhood is dealing with ticks. We raised cattle on our farm, and that meant I was frequently exposed to those tiny pests. Summertime is their favorite season, but experts say they remain active well into fall, making prevention important even after summer hikes and picnics come to an end.

Nowadays most people are aware that Lyme disease is a very serious illness that is spread by ticks. However, it is a misconception to think that all ticks carry Lyme disease. Instead, different species of ticks carry different disease-causing bacteria, and the life stage of the tick also matters.

Lyme disease is most commonly spread by blacklegged ticks, also called deer ticks, in their poppy seed-size nymph stage. Other tick-borne illnesses can also pose serious health risks, especially for older adults. One such disease is babesiosis, also transmitted by blacklegged ticks, which causes flu-like symptoms and can be life-threatening, especially for those with compromised immune systems.

Since different species are found in different parts of the country, the risk of tick-borne illnesses varies by region. Lone star ticks, for example, are commonly found in the southern states and they transmit a disease called ehrlichiosis, which can be more severe among older adults.

Another factor to consider is season, because tick activity peaks at certain times of the year. Blacklegged ticks, for example, most commonly bite in the spring, summer and fall — making preventive measures most important during those seasons.

To reduce your risk of a tick-related illness, experts recommend a two-part strategy. First, minimize your chances of being bitten in the first place. Then, take preventive steps, like examining your body and clothing, once you come indoors.

For those in high-risk areas, everyday activities like walking your dog, gardening or mowing the lawn can be the perfect opportunity for ticks to find a host.

Here are some strategies to avoid being bitten: 1. Walk in the center of trails and steer clear of wooded and brushy areas where more leaf litter is present. 2. Use a tick-repellent spray that contains EPA-registered ingredients such as DEET. 3. Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants while outdoors, making sure to tuck your pant into your socks. 4. For extra protection, look for clothing and gear that has been treated with permethrin, a chemical which kills ticks on contact.

After being outdoors, those in high-risk areas should make a daily tick-check part of their routine. That means looking over all of your “nooks and crannies” — places like the back of knees, around the ears, even inside your belly button. You can enlist a partner or use a mirror to help.

The CDC also recommends showering soon after coming inside and then examining your clothing and gear. To kill ticks on clothing, put garments in the dryer for at least 10 mins. on high heat.

If you've been outside with children, make sure to examine them for ticks, too. Pets also should be treated with a tick-preventative medicine according to your veterinarian's recommendation and checked.

If you discover a tick on your body, remove it promptly by using a fine-tipped tweezers and pulling upward with steady pressure (you don't want to break off any tick body parts and leave them behind). Avoid folk remedies like painting over the tick with nail polish or using heat to dislodge it.

The CDC recommends monitoring yourself for symptoms for 30 days following a tick bite. If you experience a rash, fever or flu-like symptoms (such as headache and joint pain), contact your health care provider.

Most tick-borne illnesses that are detected early can be treated with a simple course of antibiotics. The CDC says a Lyme-carrying tick typically needs to be attached for at least 36 hours before it transmits the disease — making daily tick checks and prompt removal all the more important.

There are a several websites that provide good information about ticks, such as entomologytoday.org. Another is tickspotters at the University of Rhode Island web: uri.edu. If you send them a tick photo, they will provide an expert response about the tick's species and disease risk within a few days.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.