Take precautions to protect against ticks, Lyme disease

October 8, 2012 

Lee Townsend is a University of Kentucky extension entomologist.

  • At issue: Sept. 17 commentary by Russell L. Croley, "Lyme disease, deer ticks no longer rare in Kentucky; medical community's denial has been costly"

Ticks are a serious nuisance and public health threat. These blood-feeding parasites typically feed on three different animals during their development, injecting saliva that causes intense, persistent itching.

People experiencing multiple bites may have severe allergic reactions, and infected ticks can transfer pathogens.

The lone star tick spread into Western Kentucky in the early 1970s on migrating wildlife and is now found over most of the state.

All three stages, including the larva or seed tick (sometimes called a turkey mite), nymph and adult feed on mammals, including humans. Some stages of the lone star tick may be found from March through October. Individual nymphs and adults are picked up from overgrown vegetation along trails and woodland edges.

However, hundreds of tiny seed ticks will climb onto anyone unfortunate enough to pass by a newly hatched egg mass. Small percentages of lone star ticks may carry ehrlichiosis or southern tick-associated rash illness.

Adult American dog ticks feed on larger mammals, including humans and dogs. They occur throughout Kentucky, and like the lone star tick, can be dispersed by wildlife. The American dog tick can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever; fortunately the proportion of infected ticks is very low. Neither the lone star nor American dog tick transmits Lyme disease.

A third tick species has recently caused concern. The blacklegged tick, vector of Lyme disease in the eastern United States, has been found on humans in Kentucky; most were picked up along deer trails in and around Daniel Boone National Forest. The adult ticks are active during the winter-spring months in contrast to the spring-summer feeding time of other species. Increased numbers have been noted in Ohio and Tennessee. Deer movement and mild winters might be major factors in their spread and survival. All three ticks feed on deer and are called deer ticks.

This marks the first significant presence of the vector of Lyme disease in Kentucky. The blacklegged ticks are relatively abundant in the South, but the incidence of Lyme disease is low compared to the Northeast and north-central United States.

Recommendations for dealing with nuisance or potentially disease-bearing ticks are the same: Protective clothing and repellents applied to skin and clothing, and regular and thorough self-inspection where ticks are known or suspected to be active. Ticks frequently wander on the body for an hour or more before feeding, and if infected, must feed for several hours before a pathogen is transferred. Detection and removal are important parts of a protection strategy.

Symptoms of tick-borne diseases are relatively general. Anyone who experiences a rash, fever, headache, joint or muscle pains or swollen lymph nodes within 30 days of a tick bite should see a physician and report the bite.

Tick identification is available through your local Cooperative Extension Service office; however, ticks cannot be tested for pathogens.

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