More than half of the blacklegged or deer ticks in Maine carry the Lyme disease microbe, Borrelia burgdorferi. (LADISLAV KUBES/ISTOCK PHOTO)
Maine’s ticks are considered a public health hazard, and not just because of Lyme disease. A woman recently died from Powassan encephalitis, a viral disease carried by deer ticks. The Lone Star tick can deliver a dangerous allergy to red meat called alpha-gal syndrome. Early spring finds ticks becoming active, so an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Tick numbers have soared in the last 30 years. A warming climate allows them to survive Maine winters, while birds and animals migrating to Maine may carry infected ticks. Our state is a hot spot for Lyme disease, with 2,000 cases reported annually, probably 10% of actual cases. Lyme disease may be preferable to other tick-borne diseases found here — anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and others. These may cause severe illness and death, while Lyme disease is rarely a cause of death. Many of these illnesses can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early.
The most common tick is the blacklegged or deer tick. They are parasites, dependent upon the blood of other creatures during a two-year life cycle from eggs to larvae to nymphs and adults. Small birds like thrushes and small mammals like mice and chipmunks are common hosts, as are white-tailed deer. During the winter ticks are dormant, hiding on the ground in leaf litter in hopes of surviving until spring. More than half of the deer ticks tested in Maine are carriers of the Lyme disease microbe, Borrelia burgdorferi, while other diseases are less prevalent but rising each year.
Ticks cannot fly or jump, so we come into contact with them while working or recreating outdoors (unless a pet brings them indoors). Ticks cling to low vegetation until a warm-blooded host comes within reach. Then the tick finds its way onto the skin of the new host, attaching by its mouth parts. Ticks inject anticoagulants to keep blood flowing and antihistamines to counter the host’s natural production of histamines. Disease-carrying microbes from the tick’s salivary glands are injected during feeding. If undetected, ticks feed for several days before they become engorged and drop off.
The sooner you remove a tick, the lower your risk of illness. We used to think that removing a tick within 48 hours of attachment meant you were safe. Recent studies show that transmission of microbes may occur in 24 hours or less. Knowing how to remove a tick safely and having the right tool handy is important for every household. Tweezers will work, but more specialized tools are available from pharmacies or sporting goods stores. Do not burn the tick with a match or douse it with alcohol, as this may result in injury to you and cause the tick to inject more microbes.
It helps to avoid thick cover where ticks congregate, keeping on hiking trails. Many people encounter ticks while gardening or doing lawn work, so reduce brushy cover around the edges of your yard. Make sure you are not providing a haven for mice and other small creatures in garden sheds, barns, etc. Resist feeding deer, since they may drop hundreds of adult ticks, each one capable of laying thousands of eggs. Your veterinarian can help protect pets that go outdoors.
Light-colored clothing makes ticks more visible. Some folks tuck their pants into their socks, but my boots fill up with debris. I wear Lymeez gaiters treated to kill ticks and prevent them from getting on my legs. Companies like L.L. Bean supply clothing treated with insect repellents that work well through many washings, but they are pricey. I advise spraying outdoor clothes with repellents before use. Some people avoid synthetic chemicals for this purpose, but I’m skeptical that cedarwood extract, neem oil and other natural products are fully effective at repelling and killing ticks. While DEET can be used on your skin, a more modern repellent, picaridin, is licensed as safe for use. I use permethrin on my clothing, allowing it to dry completely, but it must not be used on your skin.
Returning from the woods, I pop my clothing in the dryer for 10 minutes on high. Then I shower carefully, checking for ticks. Have someone else check those hard-to-reach spots if you are not too modest! Even with these precautions, sometimes I later feel a tick in my hair or walking on my body.
If you have proof of a tick bite, local doctors may give you an immediate dose of amoxicillin. If you recover a tick, preserve it with rubbing alcohol and have the doctor examine it or send it to the Tick Lab at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension for testing ($15). If you suffer serious fever, headaches or joint pain, seek immediate assistance from a health care professional.
There are more detailed articles on the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust website, or check with the Tick Lab or state agencies. Yale University is testing a human vaccine against Lyme disease with encouraging initial results, but it is years away from potential approval. For now, stay informed and take steps to protect your health while enjoying the outdoors.
Ed Robinson’s latest book, “Nature Notes from Maine Vol. II: Puffins, Black Bears, Raccoons & More,” is available from the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. All profits support HHLT’s conservation and public education efforts.