May 03, 2023
Ticks are nasty little buggers, but if you're going to be in the woods during the spring and fall, you must be ready to deal with them.
According to most tick experts and the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), tick populations and reported cases of tick-borne illnesses are rising alarmingly. The good news: With all the preventative measures available to those hitting the spring woods, there is no excuse for being unprepared to deal with ticks.
I'm not a doom-or-gloom type, but as one of my all-time favorite pastors once told me, "I'd rather scare you into heaven than see you go to hell."
I feel the same way about ticks and tick prevention, and much of the recent data I received from tick expert Dr. Thomas Pather, Ph.D., should prompt outdoorsmen and women to act.
Dr. Miller, also known as the "Tick Guy," joined the University of Rhode Island in 1992 from the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Miller now serves as the director of URI's Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its TickEncounter Resource Center. He's a wealth of tick knowledge and passionate about helping people stay safe in the woods.
"In the northern areas, about one in every two Blacklegged ticks are carrying Lyme Disease," said Miller. "In southern areas, that number shrinks to about one in twenty, which still means there are lots of ticks crawling around carrying bad germs."
Those facts should prompt all people outdoors to take proper precautions.
Dr. Miller discussed the importance of tick identification, especially concerning Blacklegged and Lonestar ticks, and urged anyone spending time outdoors to visit the TickEncouter website. From there, you can click on the Found A Tick? tab and send photos of a tick directly to URI tick experts and get information back within 24 hours.
"If you know what kind of tick bit you, you can take next-step actions," said Miller. "TickSpotter experts typically respond within 24 hours and provide accurate information about how to reduce the risk of future bites and provide information about tick-borne illnesses."
One of the nastier ticks is the Blacklegged tick, whose range is ever-expanding. According to Dr. Miller, the Blacklegged tick—commonly known as the Deer tick—like all ticks, obtains infectious diseases through reservoirs, which host various animals.
"The Blacklegged tick is associated with transmitting the germs that cause Lyme disease, Human Babesiosis, Human Anaplasmosis, Powassan virus and Hard Tick Relapsing Fever," Miller added. A single Blacklegged tick can transmit any of these germs, and sometimes a single tick can be infected with one, two, three or more different germs and could transmit them all in the same bite. Blacklegged ticks are excellent transmitters of these germs."
Lone Star Ticks
Lone Star ticks, also common throughout the country, don't transmit any of the same diseases as the Blacklegged tick, which is another reason Dr. Miller talked about the importance of tick identification throughout our interview.
"Lone Star ticks have their own germs," noted Miller. "They carry the germs that cause Human Ehrlichiosis and, though only occasionally, Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever. Their bite also sometimes creates an allergic reaction to red meat for some people called Alpha-gal syndrome. This allergy varies in degrees of severity depending on the person, but the reaction typically causes varying levels of gastric distress and even anaphylaxis. However, the likelihood of an infection from a Lone Star tick is far rarer than that of a bite from a Blacklegged tick as far as passing serious germs capable of making people sick."
Prevention Is Key
It's important to know that ticks don't fly, they don't fall from trees, and they don't spring off vegetation. Instead, depending on where the tick is in its lifecycle, it can be on the ground at boot level or on vegetation about two feet off the ground.
"Ticks aren't like mosquitos," Miller said. "Adult ticks crawl up, usually between a foot-and-a-half and two feet on vegetation and wait for a host to walk by. The Lone Star tick is the fastest of these two tick species and is by far the most aggressive tick species."
Proper prevention includes treating your boots with Permethrin. Many outdoor lifestyle companies make spray-style Permethrin, but I like those from Sawyer. Lace-up your boots tightly and tuck your pants into your socks, which is a bit uncomfortable at times, and for this reason, I've gone to Sitka's Equinox Guard Pants, which feature a lightweight internal gaiter that tucks into the socks. The pants come pretreated with insect shield, a long-lasting EPA-registered technology. In layperson's terms, a dose of Permethrin is basically cooked into the clothes. The amount used in adult Sitka Equinox Guard garments, which includes the pants, gloves and the Guard Hoody, would be safe enough for a baby's onesie.
If you don't want to go the Sitka Equinox Guard route, you can treat your clothing garments with Permethrin or send your clothing into insect shield, and they will add the appropriate dose of insect repellent.
"The main things to treat are the boots and the pants, and be sure to tuck your shirt in," added Miller. "I saw a person the other day who came in with a tick square in the middle of their back. The only way this tick got to the mid-back was by crawling up the pant leg, under the shirt, and then attaching to the mid-back."
What Ticks Are Out
Knowing tick type is equally important as knowing what ticks are active during different seasons. For instance, hunters must be aware that the Blacklegged tick is highly active in October and November. According to Dr. Miller, adult-stage Blacklegged ticks are out now but will start to fall off toward the end of May.
The most active late-spring and summer tick is the Lone Star. Like all ticks, an adult-sized Lone Star is looking to attach itself to a larger game animal like a whitetail deer.
"That's why adult ticks get up around two feet off the ground," Miller said. "They need a blood meal to survive and are keenly adapted to find a host. At two feet, they can easily attach to a deer. You become an easy host if you're walking through the woods and your boots and pants aren't treated."
Don't be scared of the spring/summer woods but do everything in your power to prepare for ticks, and if you find a tick in your skin, don't pinch it or try to get it to back out with a lighter.
"You have a tiny straw going into your skin," Miller added. "When you push or burn a tick, they vomit into you. Grab the tick as close to the skin as possible with a pair of pointy tweezers and pull it straight out."