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Art Lander’s Outdoors: As weather warms, tick-borne disease risks increase; know signs and symptoms

When warm spring weather arrives we begin spending more time outdoors, doing yard work, fishing, hunting, gardening, camping, hiking, or taking the dog for a long walk at a local park.

That puts us and our pets at risk for tick-borne diseases.

A hike in the woods, walking through chest-high dried grass and weeds at the wood’s edge, brushing up against low-hanging tree limbs or string trimming around homes and outbuildings, is all it takes to pick up a tick. Almost anywhere in rural Kentucky or along the suburban/rural interface where there are white-tailed deer, and high numbers of small mammals, ticks are present.

Here’s some of the most recent information on tick-borne diseases:

The Blacklegged tick is the main vector for lyme disease (Graphic from Wikipedia Commons)

Lyme disease gets all the headlines because it is so widespread, with such a high number of cases.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists at least 13 other diseases transmitted by ticks, including Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tularemia (rabbit fever), Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis, Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness, Alpha-Gal Syndrome, Babesiosis, and the Powassan virus, that can cause encephalitis, an infection of the brain.

Lyme is caused by the Borrelia bacterium, transmitted by the bites of infected ticks of the genus Ixodes. The Blacklegged Tick, Ixodes scapularis, is the main vector.

The Blacklegged Tick is distinctive in coloration, with a reddish-orange body, black shield and dark black legs. One of the first ticks to emerge in the spring, the Blacklegged Tick has been expanding its range in the past 20 years.

A bullseye rash is a tell-tale sign of of tick-borne infection (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

They find a capillary close to the surface of the skin, painlessly pierce the skin and begin sucking blood. They must be attached to the host for at least 36 hours to transmit the disease.

Lyme disease was first diagnosed in 1975 in Lyme, Connecticut, with the bacterium later described in 1981 by the late American scientist Willy Burgdorfer.

According to an article posted on the www.lymedisease.org about 60 percent of Lyme disease cases occur in the northeastern U.S, but Lyme is now present in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and the number of cases has risen nationwide in the last decade.

The CDC said there is no way of knowing exactly how many people get Lyme disease because it is often misdiagnosed (confused with other diseases), and underreported, especially during the last two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent estimate based on insurance records suggests that about 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease annually. In Kentucky, there were 94 confirmed cases of Lyme between 2010 and 2019, according to the CDC, but many more are suspected or go unreported.

Alpha-Gal Syndrome (AGS) is primarily transmitted by the Lone Star Tick.

An aggressive little tick, the Lone Star Tick, Amblyomma americanum, is reddish-brown in color. The adult female is distinguished by a silvery-yellowish dot on her back.

The Lone Star tick, common to the southeastern U.S., is responsible for inducing meat allergies in some people, scientists say.

A high percentage of people infected may develop a mild to severe allergic reaction which may include anaphylaxis, after they eat red meat, including beef, pork, lamb, and wild game (deer, elk, bear).

According to the posting on the Mayo Clinic website, the Lone Star Tick bite transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into the person’s body triggering an immune system reaction that produces allergic reactions.

AGS was first described in 2009 but researchers now believe the disease has been around for decades.

Kentucky is in the middle of the range of the Lone Star Tick, which extends from central Texas, north to eastern Nebraska and Iowa, east to southern Maine, and south to Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

Kentucky, and all of its border states, are in the area with the highest rates of AGS diagnosis.

Symptoms of tick-borne diseases

Symptoms of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases mimic a wide range of virus-related diseases and include a sudden fever, rash, severe headache, muscle or joint aches, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Sometimes a red bulls-eye rash develops around the site where the tick was attached.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Diseases carried by ticks can be life-altering and include permanent neurological damage, profound fatigue, memory loss, and debilitating headaches.

Preventing ticks

Ticks are found throughout Kentucky, inhabiting a wide range of landscape types including woodlands, overgrown fields, croplands, riverine corridors and brushy fencerows.

If you are going to be outdoors in tick country a good preventative measure is to treat clothing, boots and packs with the insecticide Permethrin.

Spray your clothing and gear, then hang it outside to dry on a clothesline. Permethrin should not be applied directly to the skin.

A popular and effective brand is Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent. The active ingredient, Permethrin, is a synthetic molecule similar to pyrethrum, which is taken from the chrysanthemum flower. A 9-ounce aerosol spray can sell for about $11.

A hot, soapy shower, quick body inspection and a clean set of clothes is always a good idea after time spent outdoors in tick country.

Keeping your yard, the land around your buildings and adjacent fields mowed down, will discourage ticks.

Keep your pets safe too

If you protect your dog from ticks, you’re protecting your family too. This is because family pets, and hunting dogs with house privileges, can bring ticks indoors, onto carpets, furniture and bedding.

Dogs in farm country or rural suburbs are especially susceptible to picking up a tick and developing a tick-borne disease.

Protect your dog as soon as winter ends. Your veterinarian is a good source of information about the options of tick prevention treatments, which include monthly pills, chews, or liquids applied directly to the dog’s skin, on its back, and between the shoulders.

Flea and tick prevention is important for pets as soon as winter comes to an end to avoid tick-borne illness (Photo from Flickr Commons)

If you find an engorged tick on your dog, it won’t be long before you’ll see the symptoms of a tick-borne disease if the tick was a carrier.

Dogs develop a fever, pull up lame, lose their appetites, and grow lethargic. A regime of daily antibiotics will kill the bacterium.

More dogs get tick-borne diseases than humans, and full recovery in much higher in dogs than humans. In Lyme disease specifically, there are many more confirmed cases in dogs than humans in Kentucky.

In 2020 the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) reported that Kentucky had 1,715 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in dogs in 2019, 5,149 confirmed cases of Ehrlichiosis and 213 confirmed cases of Anaplasmosis, all transmitted by ticks.

Ticks are dangerous. Keep your family and pets safe. Be vigilant after trips afield from now until the onset of cold weather this fall.

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