Monday, June 22, 2015

Avoiding Ticks In The Adirondack Region

#3 - HarringtonSummer should be a carefree season full of picnics and swimming, a time for hikes and barbeques on the deck, not a time to fret about tick-borne illnesses.  As few as ten years ago it was unusual to find even one brown dog tick or lone star tick on your person after a weekend of camping in northern NY state. Now in many places all you have to do is set foot in the brush to get several black-legged ticks, commonly known as deer ticks, which are harder to see than other ticks.

The deer tick is known to transmit Lyme disease as well as Babesiosis, anaplasmosis, Powassan virus and other serious illnesses. In fact it’s possible for two or more diseases to be transferred to a host, human or otherwise, by a single tick bite.

Most infections come from an immature or “nymph” stage deer tick, which can be tinier than a poppy seed and nearly impossible to detect (at least for those of us over fifty) without magnification. The adults are not exactly huge, being a bit smaller than a sesame seed. To avoid tick bites, those who work or play outdoors need to start taking precautions that weren’t necessary in the past.

This isn’t to say we need to panic (though feel free to do so if you like, of course). According to the National Institutes for health (NIH), only about 20% of deer ticks are infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the spirochete bacterium that causes Lyme. In most cases, ticks must feed for 24-36 hours in order to transmit disease. And even in the case of transmission, prompt treatment cures Lyme in the majority of infected people.

However, it’s not always as easy as taking pills and getting better. Unlike a tissue infection where antibiotics usually provide relief within days, Lyme symptoms can persist for weeks or months after the standard 3-week treatment has ended. In rare cases it can be a year or more. This is called “Post-Lyme Syndrome,” and its causes are not well understood. Lyme is not a disease to take lightly.

Avoiding ticks is the first order of business. Ticks “quest” at the tips of tall grass or brush, waiting to cling to the next warm body that brushes against them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend using products containing 20-30% DEET on exposed skin. Clothing, footwear and gear such as tents can be treated with products containing the active ingredient permethrin.

To deter ticks, homeowners can clear brush, weeds and tall grasses from the edges of their yards. Ticks like to hide out under leaf litter (which is why sprays are not generally effective against them), so maintaining a yard perimeter that’s raked clean can help keep their numbers down.

Pets should be treated regularly with a systemic anti-tick product or tick collar so they don’t bring deer ticks into the home. Talk to your vet about getting your pets vaccinated against Lyme (sadly there is no human vaccine at the moment).

Despite their name, deer ticks feed on – and infect – many wild critters, particularly the ubiquitous white-footed mouse. Because of ticks’ prevalence, even in the Adirondacks, people who spend a lot of time outside will eventually have contact with deer ticks. This is where tick hygiene comes in.

Shower and wash thoroughly every evening and then check for ticks. Unfortunately they like hard-to-see places such as the armpits, groin, scalp and the backs of the knees, so look closely in these areas.

If you find a tick has latched onto you, the CDC recommends you remove it by grasping it as close to the skin as possible with tweezers and pulling straight up until it releases. You may have to pull hard if it’s been feeding for some time. Don’t twist it or use heat, petroleum jelly or other home remedies to get it to release, as this can increase the chances of disease transmission.

Typical early symptoms of Lyme disease include severe headache, chills, fever, extreme fatigue, joint pain and dizziness. A red, expanding “bull’s-eye” rash (erythema migrans) may occur between 3-30 days after a bite. But according to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS is a nonprofit international medical society), fewer than 50% of people with Lyme disease recall having the erythema migrans rash.

Symptoms can vary widely with each individual. Early signs may go away on their own, but the Lyme organism will cause more serious health issues in the future if ignored. These include arthritis, heart problems and debilitating memory loss and confusion.

If you’ve been bitten by a tick and have these symptoms, call your doctor right away. They can order a blood test, or may even prescribe antibiotics based on symptoms. For more information, go to the CDC website or to the NIH site.  A comprehensive website is also hosted at

Photo courtesy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

8 Responses

  1. mac the knife says:

    I’d love to see a map of higher risk areas for finding deer ticks. I haven’t seen any in the north central adirondacks, although I am sure they are on their way. i take no precautions in the tri lakes, long lake and cranberry lake areas because I haven’t seen one dispite spending a lot if time outdoors. When I see the first here I will sadly start taking precautions like I do everywhere else.

  2. Jim Fox says:

    This is an excellent article on ticks and Lyme disease.

    My wife, who has been coming to Stillwater Reservoir for nearly seventy five years became a tick host for the first time two weeks ago. Luckily it had only been on her less than a day – the ER physician in Lowville reassured her not to worry. But we do…

    We have a avid hunter relative who has been suffering from Post-Lyme Syndrome for twenty years. It has affected his speech, mobility, and balance with arthritis-like joint pain. Medical treatment has not been effective. It’s degenerative symptoms are scary.

    Lyme Disease may not have reached the Adirondacks or North Country, but ticks are here.

    Check you bodies, people!

  3. Dan Crane says:

    I don’t dispute that ticks and Lyme disease are present in the Adirondacks; the numbers speak for themselves.

    My personal experience indicates something altogether different. I have never found a tick on me while exploring the Adirondacks, despite being out in the remote backcountry for days at a time, where I’ve traversed through all different types of habitats, including grassy meadows. Plus, I am often sitting or crawling on the ground. I keep waiting to find one, as I know it will probably happen eventually, but it hasn’t happened yet. Thus, I have not taken any great measures to deter them (e.g. permethrin). Maybe I’m just fooling myself and I never found them because I never looked hard enough and the nasty things attached to me numerous times over the years.

    Then again, I never found a tick on myself after hiking in central New York either, despite finding them on dogs several times. Maybe ticks just don’t like me. Too bad black flies don’t feel the same way.

    • Paul says:

      You are lucky. My older son got Lyme disease it isn’t pretty.

      In central NY the incidence is so high that they are basically treating anyone who finds an engorged tick on them. (the test is also not the greatest) The antibiotics for treatment are a nasty long course and they wipe out many of the good bacteria from your system also. I certainly wouldn’t us the fact that it can be treated as a reason to not take precautions.

  4. Paul Hetzler says:

    Dan and Paul,

    I have not looked into this, but over the past few years a number of people have made the observation that some folks seem to be “tick magnets.” The anecdotes echo one another, ‘My camping/ hunting/ fishing companion came away without a tick while I got five/ ten/ etc.’
    In all seriousness I’d like to see a study to identify any potential factors such as diet, personal hygiene products (or avoidance thereof) or even laundry detergent choices that could be modified to help deter ticks. Incidentally I have no trouble with black flies, but might qualify as a “tick magnet.”

  5. Susan Earley says:

    Glad to see that you mentioned the other diseases carried by deer ticks. I live in Keene & was speaking with my doctor down in Glens Falls today and they are having a huge problem w/ Anaplasmosis & Babesiosis – people are dying from it. It some cases it shuts down your kidneys permanently & in others it literally destroys your erythrocytes(red blood cells) She said the hardest part was getting people to take these other illnesses seriously. Most people are familiar w/Lyme Disease & tend to stop listening after that, even though these other ones can be far more deadly.