Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
(With the season for this at its peak in New England, and this disease throughout much of the region, I thought this worth posting; especially as our plant sitter and my wife both picked up a deer tick this past month in northern Vermont, even with long pants and in mown areas. I make sure and spray my work clothes, especially the lower parts, thoroughly with a high DEET spray before gardening. )
Lyme disease is a potentially disabling disease of joints and the nervous system, spread by deer ticks. It is important to know about this disease, how it is spread, and steps to avoid it, as gardeners may come into contact with these ticks. As our local community doctor said recently, a bit of knowledge will help you continue gardening in spite of this pest.
This previously unknown disease was first found on children in Lyme, Connecticut in 1975. It was given its current name, ticks were identified as the vector spreading it, and in the early 1980’s research identified the cause as a spirochete bacterium. It has since become the most reported vector-borne disease in the country. It is prevalent in the Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and parts of the Northwest. While southern New England areas are high risk, much of the rest of New England is moderate risk with only the most northern parts low risk.
Although this disease is rarely fatal, it can cause debilitating illness including heart irregularities, facial paralysis, and impairment of the nervous system. Early symptoms to watch for include minor symptoms such as skin rash, fever, headaches, and muscle and joint pain. Very characteristic is a skin rash called “erythema migrans”. This rash appears as a red circular patch at the site of a tick bite within three days to one month. As it enlarges, this patch often takes on a “doughnut” or “bulls eye” appearance. As ticks like warm spots, parts of the body to watch are thighs, groin, trunk, and armpits.
Of course many tick bites will cause an allergic reaction, but shouldn’t be confused with the symptoms of Lyme disease. Such non-serious allergic reactions appear within a few hours or days, do not expand or have the bulls-eye feature, and disappear in a few days.
Although there are no vaccines to prevent Lyme disease, it can be treated with antibiotics once diagnosed. Prompt treatment, however, is important. Early treatment usually results in full and rapid recovery. Permanent damage may occur if treatment is in the very late stages.
Although three types of ticks can carry the disease, the deer ticks get the most mention. Ticks feed on small rodents, birds, and deer that may carry the Lyme disease but not be affected by it. This is where the ticks pick up the bacteria, and then transmit it to humans. If a tick bites a human and remains attached for 24 to 48 hours, the bacteria may spread into the bloodstream and begin to cause the above symptoms.
Avoiding places where ticks live or checking for tick bites if you are in such areas is a primary means of prevention of Lyme disease. Ticks like cool, wet places such as wooded areas, piles of debris, and high grasses. If you garden in or around such areas, watch for ticks and tick bites. Any other activities in such areas are also at risk, such as camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, or walking pets.
Since a tick must remain attached for a day or two to cause infection, frequent checking for ticks if you’re in high risk areas is important. Ticks are active in spring through fall, but most active in mid-summer. If you find ticks, remember not all carry this disease. The Rhode Island Department of Health has some excellent information online to identify ticks, as well as much more on this disease (www.health.ri.gov/disease/communicable/lyme).
No matter what kind of tick you find, you probably want to remove it. DO NOT try to remove it with heat as from a match, or alcohol. This will only irritate the tick and cause it to more quickly insert more toxin. Instead, use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the mouthparts of the tick as close to the skin as possible, and firmly pull straight out.
Tips to prevent tick bites, in addition to avoiding their habitats, include:
–Wear light-colored clothing so you can spot ticks more easily.
–Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to minimize exposure.
–Tuck pant legs inside socks or boots to keep ticks on the outside.
–Use an insect repellent containing 20 to 30 percent DEET, 10 percent for children. Follow label instructions and safety precautions when using.
–After being outdoors in high risk areas, inspect body surfaces closely. Place clothes in a hot drier to kill any ticks if on clothes.
Even if you don’t live or walk in a high risk area, ticks can catch rides into your yard on animal hosts such as deer and mice. Many areas now have deer in landscapes. A white-tailed deer can carry hundreds of ticks year round. About 70 percent of people that contract Lyme disease catch it from ticks in their own yards. Tips to minimize ticks in your landscape include:
–Keep your yard clean and free of debris, grass clippings, and leaf litter.
–Keep grass mowed, especially along property edges.
–Trim shrubs near walks and patios, and keep groundcovers away from these and play areas.
–Create a three-foot wide barrier, three inches deep, between lawns and wooded areas using gravel, mulch, or wood chips.
–Keep woodpiles away from gardens and lawns.
–If you have deer nearby, or visiting your landscape, begin deer-proofing techniques. There are some articles on this on this website (perrysperennials.info).