New York State IPM Program

June 19, 2018
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on Tick Trickery

Tick Trickery

Got ticks on your mind? Your questions. Our answers:

How common are tick-borne diseases — and who is at risk?

Lyme disease is the second most common infectious disease in the entire U.S. But over 96% of all cases come from only 14 states. Now that’s scary, because New York and the Northeast are at dead center for tick trickery.

What looks like spilled ink? That’s where most ticks hang out. (CDC)

Indeed, Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the entire United States — and the second disease most commonly reported to the Centers of Disease Control, aka the CDC. (It comes right after chlamydia and before gonorrhea—both sexually transmitted diseases that could strike most anywhere.)

Each year, the CDC gets reports of about 30,000 cases of Lyme disease. But most likely that’s just a fraction of the number of cases. The CDC estimates that each year between 300,000 and 400,000 people are infected with the bacteria causing Lyme — and children ages 5 to 9 have the greatest risk. Parents, check your kids for ticks every day. Make it as mandatory as brushing teeth. “Oh, they were outside for only 10 minutes” or “Oh, but we live in a big city. How could there ticks possibly be here?” — trust us, these aren’t reasons to skip.

Those numbers on the left-hand side? It’s 5-9 year-old boys who most often run into the wrong side of a tick. (CDC)

No, you don’t have to be an outdoor adventurer to be exposed to disease. People can chance upon ticks in all sorts of places. Pushing a friend on the swings, gardening, picnicking at the park, taking a shortcut through a vacant lot, raking leaves—any perfectly normal activity could put you or your kids on the wrong side of a tick.

What diseases do ticks transmit?

Lyme disease is hardly the only pathogen ticks carry. They can also carry anaplasmosis, babesiosis, erhrlichiosis, Powassan virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and Borrelia miyamotoi—a bacteria related to the agent of Lyme disease. (More info: Lyme Disease by the Numbers.)

Naturally, different kinds of ticks transmit different disease-causing pathogens — and the list of tick-borne pathogens continues to grow. Plus ticks can transmit more than one pathogen at a time. Example? The blacklegged tick  (aka the deer tick) can transmit Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis all at once. Here’s the short list:

  • Blacklegged tick: Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Powassan virus
  • Lone star tick: ehrlichiosis, southern tick associated rash illness (STARI), tularemia
  • American dog tick: Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia

Does every tick convey disease-causing pathogens?

No. Ticks don’t share a common destiny. Not every tick carries the pathogens that make us sick. Here in the Northeast, three ticks transmit pathogens—the blacklegged, lone star and American dog ticks.

Larval ticks, the stage that hatches from eggs with only six legs (nymphs and adults have eight legs), aren’t thought to play a major role in disease. But if larval ticks take their first blood meal from an infected animal, well—they’re infected too. Once they morph into nymphs, they can transmit whatever pathogens they took on.

Note: it’s possible that Powassan virus, carried by the blacklegged tick, can be transmitted from a female to her offspring — and that larval blacklegged ticks can transmit Borrelia miyamotoi, a type of relapsing disease. And what’s a relapsing disease? It’s when signs and symptoms of disease return after it seemed the disease was gone.

Blacklegged nymphs cause the most disease—partly because

  • they’re roughly the size of a poppy seed—not easy to see, and …
  • they’re active in spring when people aren’t thinking about ticks — though it’ll be summer before symptoms show.

Some nymphs and adults never acquire pathogens. Not every tick is infected. The rate of infection differs throughout the region. No common destiny there.

If I find a tick crawling on me, am I at risk for disease? And … how do they transmit disease?

Ticks transmit pathogens only while they’re attached and feeding. So no, a tick can’t infect you while it’s still looking for a place to feed. Once it’s fed, it’ll drop right off. That said:

  • if you find a tick crawling on you, don’t squish it
  • brushing ticks off your clothing is no guarantee they’ll stay off.

But if you keep a small vial of rubbing alcohol in your backpack or bag, you can quickly kill ticks by dropping them in. And that’s one less tick in your neck of the woods.

How do they make you sick? Ticks pick up pathogens from one organism (make that the mouse rummaging around under the shrubbery) and transmit them to another (make this one your kid). Here, not for the faint of heart, is how it works:

Larval ticks slide their mouthparts into the mouse — their soon-to-be host — and begin sucking blood. (Those mouthparts might seem a poor excuse for a head, but they get the job done.) At the same time, their saliva enters that mouse’s bloodstream — and yes, the saliva might be carrying pathogens. The time required for pathogens to pass from tick to host is variable. While viruses such as Powassan virus can be transferred within minutes, bacteria appear to take longer. (Just how long is open to debate, so we won’t get involved in that one.)

Need to remove a tick? Learn how here: Its tick season. Put away the matches.

We’ve got a couple of other posts in the pipeline, so we won’t return to this riveting topic until early or mid-July. But do stay tuned.

November 1, 2017
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on It’s (still) tick season — and will be evermore

It’s (still) tick season — and will be evermore

Sorry to bring up a sore subject, but it’s still tick season. And will be all year round. What … during winter? Really? Yes. But for starters here’s your pop quiz:

A tick’s lifespan is

  • three months
  • ten months
  • twenty-four months (that is, about two years)

The best way to remove a tick is to

  • swab it with nail polish
  • hold a hot match to its behind
  • pull it straight up with fine-point tweezers

Even 15 million years ago, it was tick season. Trapped in amber, this tick carries Lyme-causing bacteria. (Photo credit Oregon State University.)

But back to our intro. Here’s the scoop: an adult female that hasn’t yet managed to grab hold of a large animal (think deer — or person) to get that all-important blood meal (can’t lay eggs without it) doesn’t want to wait around till a sunshiny summer day next year, because by then its number is up. Besides, the mice, chipmunks or birds it fed on earlier in its life cycle have only so much blood to go around. So that tick stays just below the soil where tall meadow flowers or low shrubs grow. Waiting. Waiting for a thaw barely long enough for it to scramble up one of those stems.

Waiting for the cues that tell it a warm-blooded animal is at close range. An animal that might be you.

And now for a look at our quiz. A tick’s lifespan? Your answer is (drumroll) C: upward of two years. Here’s how it works: Ticks spend a lot of time in dormancy, aka diapause. Eggs are laid in spring, tucked away out of sight. If some critter doesn’t find and eat them, they’ll hatch during summer as larval ticks (seed ticks, they’re sometimes called). Larval ticks are not infected with Lyme when they hatch — indeed, they’re pure as the fallen snow.

Meanwhile if likely hosts — those mice, chipmunks or birds — wander by, the ticks latch on. And if a host is already infected with Lyme disease or any of its nasty co-infections, those larval ticks, pure no more, are infected too.

Look close and you’ll see that spring, summer, fall, winter … every season is tick season. (Image credit Florida Dept. Health)

Larvae that make it this far morph into nymphs, and it’s diapause season again as the nymphs wait it out till the following spring. Assuming these ticks are now carriers —and about 25% will be — spring is the worst time of year for us. Because these ticks are tiny enough (the infamous poppy-seed stage) that they’re easy to overlook. If you get bit, ipso facto — you get Lyme (and quite possibly a co-infection too).

Things slack off in late summer as surviving nymphs enter a diapause that lasts till the following spring. But you can’t let down your guard, since by mid-fall through winter you’ve got those adult ticks to consider. The good thing (if “good thing” there is)? While half of these sesame seed-sized ticks are infected, they’re also easier to spot and remove.

Our second  quiz item? If any of these strike you as valuable folk wisdom, strike the valuable part and know it ain’t so. Nail polish? Matches? Don’t even think of it. Those first two items are just likely to tick that tick off — and it’ll vomit its gut contents into you in its hurry to get out. That is, if it can get out quickly; if it’s really drilled in, it has downloaded a cement-like substance to anchor itself. It takes some doing to disengage, however persuasive the nail polish, burnt match, or myriad other folklore remedies. (Twisting it is another no-no that comes to mind, mainly because someone asked me about it mid-way through this post.)

Pointy tweezers, held right against your skin and gripping the mouthparts, are the way to go. (Image credit tickencounter.org)

If you value your health, get yourself some pointy tweezers, sold for needlepoint and other crafts, and carry them with you always in your bag, backpack, or whatever you haul around. Grasp that tick as close as you can get to your skin and pull steadily. Did its mouthparts remain glued within? Not to worry — the tick will feed no more. And before too many days go by, your exfoliating skin (that’s when the top layer of skin cells drift away) will exfoliate them in turn.

With ticks, prevention can include everything from doing routine tick checks to wearing repellent clothing when you’re outdoors — regardless the season. And you can’t do much better than this for advice about dressing right.

Meanwhile here’s your catchphrase: 32, ticks on you. “32” as in 32°F. Stay watchful — and stay safe.

August 24, 2017
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on Getting ticked? Bummed about Lyme disease? You’re not alone

Getting ticked? Bummed about Lyme disease? You’re not alone

An NYS IPM Your NEWA Blog entry dropped into my inbox a couple of days ago — and since the entire conversation on my bus ride into work today was about ticks, a topic no one seemed to tire of, I just had to borrow from it for this post.

Here’s how it begins:

“Getting ticked? You’re not the only one.” That’s my colleague Dan Olmstead speaking. He continues:

“I was at Empire Farm Days working the New York State IPM Program booth last week. What do you think the most asked-about topic was?

“Every question I answered was about ticks. Ticks are most well-known as carriers of Lyme disease and they are on the rise. Changing weather and climate patterns could be partly to blame. Growing seasons are getting longer and ticks have more time to develop.”

Dan goes on to explain that range expansion is another likely factor coinciding with increasing numbers of mice and deer. These critters do well in fragmented habitat, whether it’s overgrown field, hedgerows — or expanding suburbs.

Mice infected with Lyme transmit it to the young ticks that feed on them. Meanwhile deer (birds too) pick up ticks in one place and ferry them to new, perhaps un-infested locations — making them complicit in transmitting Lyme disease despite the fact that, at least on deer, Lyme-free ticks (and yes, such ticks exist) won’t contract Lyme by feeding on deer.

But the black-legged tick (aka deer tick), host to Lyme disease and several other nasty co-infections, isn’t the only dog in the fight. It has friends — as it were. Here (courtesy the Centers for Disease Control) are the ticks we see and the most common diseases now associated with them:

Black-legged Ticks  Lyme, Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis and Powassan virus
Lone Star Ticks    Erlichiosis, STARI, and Tularemia
American Dog Ticks   Tularemia and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Brown Dog Ticks Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

When Empire Farm Days rolled around in early August, the tiny nymphs — the most dangerous stage for us humans — were still at it, still clambering onto the tall grasses and low brush or meadow plants that they’d perched on most every chance they got since May. They were waiting for the right host to come by. It’s called questing. And yes, these ticks are — metaphorically at least — on a quest that for them means life or death. (Most die but plenty remain.)

True, by now in late August, their populations have peaked. But even so they’re still eight-armed and dangerous.

Eight-armed? OK — make that eight-legged.

And typically by early August, it’s too hot and dry anyway for ticks to quest for hosts. But by early August this year, our colleague Joellen Lampman hadn’t seen the usual summer decline in black-legged tick questing. Ticks like to quest when humidity is greater than 85%, and 2017 assuredly hasn’t been stingy on that account.

Got ticks on your mind? Bummed because you’re stuck inside and feel like you can’t get out in the woods like you used to? Worried because deer have found your neighborhood, regardless how populated your neighborhood? Wondering how best to protect yourself? Seek no further: Tick Encounter is your one-stop shopping for everything you need to know. Check it out.

February 24, 2016
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on Every Season Is Tick Season

Every Season Is Tick Season

At IPM we call it the black-legged tick because that’s its true name. Yet most people in North America — perhaps even you, dear reader — call it the deer tick. A name with curious stories to tell.

But first the commercial: every season is tick season. Impervious to all but the most bitter cold, ticks take shelter in the leaf litter in gardens and woods. Whenever it gets a little above freezing, they crawl out and up. Any adults that failed to find a host earlier in winter or fall scramble into knee-high vegetation. (Females need a blood meal before they can lay eggs.) There they wait patiently for some critter to brush against whatever stalk they’re clinging to, and when it does — they grab hold.

Courtesy of TickEncounter at the University of Rhode Island, this image shows all the life-cycle info you need to know.

Courtesy of TickEncounter at the University of Rhode Island, this image shows all the life-cycle info you need to know.

Even during this fickle February of 2016, when many places south of the Adirondacks have repeatedly lost their snow cover, leaving the barren ground to freeze hard, those ticks keep ticking along. Yes, many die. But many remain. On lovely sunshiny days when you wander outside to shake off a bout of cabin fever, be sure to dress right to keep ticks off you.

And having done that, relentlessly check yourself for ticks when you get inside.

Now back to our story. That name — deer tick — suggests that deer carry Lyme disease. If you’ve had a bout with Lyme or any of the less-than-pleasant co-infections that black-legged ticks also vector, just thinking of Bambi could give you the chills. But while deer assuredly spread ticks far and wide, they don’t vector Lyme. Which means a tick that is Lyme-free won’t pick up the Lyme pathogen from a deer.

The buck stops there.

Verdant summer meadows? Come winter, the ticks are still there.

Verdant summer meadows? Stay vigilant. It’s too easy to pick up tiny, hard to see nymphs  — ones already vectoring Lyme.

The critters that most commonly carry Lyme disease — notably mice, but also shrews and chipmunks — assuredly do get Lyme disease. But odd as it seems, it doesn’t knock them out. Instead they just keep chugging along, doing their mouse or shrew or chipmunk thing. Which includes transmitting the Lyme pathogen to ticks throughout their life cycle. Ticks that grow larger and larger. Ticks that eventually — instead of hanging out low to the ground where the mice are — become large enough to scramble into knee-high vegetation where they’re yet more likely to land on some hapless human. Or dog, raccoon, fox, coyote, skunk, cat, sheep, a ground-nesting bird, cow, horse … the list goes on.

Some, like deer and probably other wild animals, don’t get particularly ill — though it’s not been closely studied. But dogs, horses, and humans (less likely, cats) can get knocked for a loop. Even so, we likewise don’t transmit Lyme; the tick would already need to be infected. The buck stops there.

The next commercial: about that tick that snuck aboard during your post-lunch walk in the curiously warm February sun … you might not have as much time to deal with it as once was thought. Sure, in some cases it’ll be 24 to 48 hours before that tick starts transmitting Lyme. And not every tick carries Lyme or other diseases.

But still, better safe than sorry. Because recent research suggests: as you sit down to dinner that tick might already be dining too, but with consequences you don’t want to bear. Knowing that, relentlessly check yourself for ticks when you get inside. And even if you don’t care for school grounds or a summer camp, this IPM fact sheet is rich with useful information.

Many thanks to Rick Ostfeld (Senior Scientist, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies) and Joellen Lampman (Turfgrass Specialist, NYS IPM).

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